Organ Trade Essay

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Volume 17, Number 1&2, Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Dignitas, the Center’s quarterly publication, and is adapted and expanded from a piece entitled, "Black Market Organs" by Paige C. Cunningham that originally appeared in Trinity Magazine Spring (2010): 18-19. Subscriptions to Dignitas are available to CBHD Members. To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member click here.

"Global social justice." It is an excellent but overwhelming goal. We rightly care about fellow human beings who are cut off from basic goods like clean water, basic education, and healthcare. Their needs are staggering. Yet, those who are most vulnerable to exploitation are often not those who need something, but those who have something that others desperately want. These victims are the poor and disadvantaged who are the targets of organ trafficking.

The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity has focused attention on this urgent issue for the past two years, beginning with several lectures in 2008, and highlighted in our 2009 conference, Global Bioethics: Emerging Challenges Facing Human Dignity.

Black market organ transfer is the consequence of a gross imbalance between supply and demand. The waiting list of patients who are in need of an organ vastly outnumbers the organs being donated. Over the last ten years, more than 65,000 transplant candidates in the United States were removed from the waiting list because they died.[1] The desperation of sick patients and shortage of domestic donors has contributed to the emergence of "transplant tourism," connecting those who need an organ with those who have them. Most often, the prized organ is a kidney, but partial-livers and single corneas are also traded. Typically, the sick patient is from a wealthy nation, while the organ donor usually lives in a disadvantaged country. The transplant may take place in the recipient's country, the donor's country, or in a private, boutique hospital in a third location. These hospitals are set up to avoid legal barriers in the home countries of donors and recipients.

The National Organ Transplant Act makes it "unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human organ for valuable consideration for use in human transplantation."[2] Excluding the buying and selling of the organ itself, this act clearly allows monetary compensation for all other aspects of the transfer including "removal, transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, and storage of a human organ or the expenses of travel, housing, and lost wages incurred by the donor."

Aside from reimbursement for medical and travel costs these guidelines allow for virtually no benefit to be procured by the donor. The lack of organ donors suggests that for most people altruism is not enough. In their search for an organ donor many have traveled abroad, often to poor countries. Wealthy people with sick organs and poor people with healthy organs tend to gravitate together in hopes of an exchange. Sadly, the exchange is often heavily one sided. Transplant procedures are a bargain for the organ recipient. One Christian physician in India told CBHD that India is the medical tourism destination of the world. In 2007, over 150,000 medical tourists advantaged themselves of the lower prices in India ($200,000 vs. $10,000 for a heart valve replacement), and the readily available market of kidney sellers.

Advocates of social justice might think that this provides a unique way for an impoverished man to care for his family. He can live adequately with one organ, and the price is a princely sum in his community. The reality is less attractive.

First, the power distance between donor and potential recipient is great. The group identified as prospective donors are vulnerable because of their low social status, their ethnicity, their gender,[3] their age, or their incarceration.[4] Even though they are called 'donors,' many part with their kidney under the enticement of the promise of a rich reward. Staggering under a load of debt, they grasp at this hope of improving their lot in life. Others are simply coerced (with brutal force), or deceived. In the hospital for one purpose, they wake up from surgery to discover their kidney has been removed without their consent.

Consider the stark picture of exploitation in India: Kidney recipients often pay $25,000 for the transplant, and the donor may receive $1,250 to $2,500. Kidneys may be sold for as little as $700, but the patient may pay over $180,000 for the transplant. Who is pocketing the difference? The payment is divided among the kidney broker, the harvesting surgeon, and the transplant hospital. Some receive nothing. One Manila transplant surgeon callously remarked that a large bag of rice should suffice, since "donors" are only playing the part of the Good Samaritan.

Even if they do receive payment, few donors improve their lot in life. Within a few months, their situation is even more dire. The payment has vanished into the pockets of those to whom the donor was in debt. The donor often is physically maimed, and unable to return to his former line of work: heavy manual labor.

However, the relatively small financial compensation should not be the basis for our complaint against organs being bought and sold on the black market. Even if the donor were to receive larger sums of money ethical difficulties would remain and the notion of global social justice would not be advanced. Human organs ought not to be assigned an arbitrary monetary value regardless of the price tag. Whether the black market donor is paid $2,000 or $20,000 he or she is being used as a means to an end rather than being respected as an individual human being.

The ethical problems do not stop there. Tragically, many are outcast within their village, where they are viewed as prostitutes. Viorel, a 27-year-old, unemployed kidney seller from Moldova believes it is worse than that: "We are worse than prostitutes because what we have sold we can never get back. We have given away our health, our strength, and our lives."[5]

One of the darkest sides of the organ trade is the physical abandonment of the donors. Once the recipient has the organ, the profiting parties tend to lose all interest in the donor. Few donors have subsequent access to medical care, and many are maimed for life. This is no way for fellow human beings to be treated, even if both parties receive temporary benefits.

Our doctor friend in India reminds us that all people are made in the image of God, from the callous transplant surgeon to the sick kidney patient to the abandoned donor. We must pursue justice and compassion. There are ethical ways for transplant patients to receive organs from global donors. The donor must be respected as an individual, must be able to give truly informed consent, must be free from physical or financial coercion, and must be cared for after his organ is harvested.

As Christians, we should demand no less.


[3] Even though women may be approached to give a kidney, the majority of donors are men. Virtually all organs go to men; women rarely receive illicit organ transplants.

[4] Before China adopted the Human Transplantation Act in 2007, there were reports of as many as 11,000 transplants of organs from prisoners whose execution was timed to meet donor needs. See Debra A. Budiana-Saberi and F. L. Delmonico, "Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism: A Commentary on the Global Realities." American Journal of Transplantation 8 (2008): 925-929.

[5] Nancy Scheper-Hughes, "Rotten Trade: Millennial Capitalism, Human Values and Global Justice in Organs Trafficking." Journal of Human Rights, no. 2 (June 2003): 197-226, 200.

While it is most commonly believed that trafficking only takes places for commercial sexual exploitation or for forced labor, trafficking in fact takes many forms such as trafficking for organ trade among others. In most of the world, laws specifically ban the sale of organs but due to a high demand for organs and with long waiting lists for donors in countries such as the U.S a market has emerged for illegal trafficking and trade of organs. Black Market organ trade was considered a myth until recently evidence has proved that there are signs of it and it is starting to become a growing problem. Organ trafficking occurs in three ways. Firstly, there are cases where people use force or deceive the victims into giving up an organ. Secondly, there have been cases where victims agree to sell an organ and result in being cheated by not being paid fully or at all. Thirdly, vulnerable persons are treated for an ailment which sometimes doesn’t exist and their organ is removed without their knowledge.

There is a high demand in the United States for organ transplants, in the year 2004, United States Doctors performed 24,900 lifesaving organ transplants. The main reason why there has been a major demand for organ trade on the black market is that that right now there is a waiting list that features more than 80,000 people waiting for an organ donor. “In the United States, a new person is added to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) list every 14 minutes,” UNOS spokesperson Anne Paschke told National Geographic News. With so many patients needed transplants and much less willing donors the waiting time is extremely long. “In 2002 over 6,000 Americans died while waiting for organs, according to UNOS (United Network of Organ Sharing) data”. With some cases patients might not have enough time to wait for a donor legally or else they will die so they will resort to the black market.

Right now on the black market the commonly traded organs are kidneys, liver and any organ that can be removed and used. I spoke with Nancy Scheper-Hughes who has spent more than a decade on tracking the illegal sale of human organs across the globe. She poses as a medical doctor in some places and a kidney buyer to gather evidence on illegal organ trade. “I have linked gangsters, clergymen and surgeons in a trail that led from South Africa, Brazil and other developing nations all the way back to our country’s best medical facilities”. In 2003 she found herself sitting across from transplant surgeons in a small conference room at a Philadelphia hospital.

“I believe that these surgeons had been transplanting black-market kidneys from residents of the world into the failing bodies of wealthy dialysis patients from Israel, Europe and the United States”. The transplants were priced at around $150,000, which allows only the wealthy to have this opportunity. She said “It is important that people realize what is happening here in our own country, I understand that the waiting time can be long but now our doctors our conducting off the record transplants to gain more money that is the real issue here”.

After taking a look at both side and hearing both perspectives I understand it. I get it, I understand why if you were caught up in a long line waiting for something to save your life and might not get it in time why you would want to take the shortcut and pay the extra money. Hell, if it was me I probably would do exactly that, although the thing that I can agree with that is wrong and needs to be dealt with is the removal of organs from poor people from poor countries who do not get paid their money or have their organs stolen from them. That is the issue we need to resolve and further investigate.


“Organ Shortage Fuels Illicit Trade in Human Parts.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. “Not Just Urban Legend.” Newsweek. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. “Black-Market Scandal Shakes India’s Ban on Organ Sales.” Conde Nast Digital, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. “The Illegal Trade in Organ Is Fueled by Desperation and Growing.” SPIEGEL ONLINE. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. “World Socialist Web Site.” Dramatic Increase in Worldwide Illegal Organ Trade -. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. Campbell, Denis, and Nicola Davison. “Illegal Kidney Trade Booms as New Organ Is ‘sold Every Hour'” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2012. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. S

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