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Backgrounder on Organ Trafficking

Right now more than 114-thousand Americans are waiting for an organ transplant.  A new name gets added to the list…

By Erika Wright , in Trafficking , at October 9, 2019

Right now more than 114-thousand Americans are waiting for an organ transplant.  A new name gets added to the list every 10-minute. And this year alone, more than four-thousand patients will die while awaiting a kidney transplant.

More and more people are opting to donate their organs after death, but the tragic truth is, there still aren’t enough organs for those in need of potentially lifesaving transplant surgery.  However, there are plenty of people willing to make a profit off others’ desperation. That makes organ trafficking big business all around the world.  

The Business of Body Parts

It’s estimated the illegal organ trade generates at least 75-million dollars globally every year.  So-called commercial transplants account for about ten-percent of this type of surgery.  

Kidneys top the list of most-needed body parts, followed by the heart, lungs and liver.  A healthy kidney can fetch thousands of dollars on the open market, but donors rarely see a fair share of the cash.  Body part brokers take most of the profits.

Experts say developing nations are seeing the largest uptick in illegal organ sales.  The practice is viewed as a relatively simple way for the poorest members of the population to provide food and shelter for their families.  India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Mexico are currently among the leading sources of illegal body parts. At one time China actually sold the organs of executed inmates.  It banned the practice in 2015, but was recently accused of harvesting organs from Uyghurs.  Iran offers the only legal, regulated organ market in the world.  Despite the legality, its program only produces about 14-hundred kidneys a year, doing little to satisfy worldwide demand.  

Conversely, recipients of illegal organs tend to come from much more affluent parts of the world.  The World Health Organization lists Australia, Canada, The United States, Japan, and Saudi Arabia as the top organ-importing nations.  

Transplant Tourism

Donor organs have a very short shelf life.  This means recipients must travel to the source to receive their transplant.  The practice of transplant tourism is becoming increasingly common, and it remains highly controversial.  Critics call this type of tourism exploitive because of the income gap between recipients and “donors.”   

Traveling for a transplant is extremely expensive.  Organs do not come cheap, and for-profit clinics often charge exorbitant fees not routinely covered by standard health insurance.  The procedure alone can cost as much as $160-thousand.  You also have to factor in the high cost of a short-notice journey to a distant part of the world.  It’s a price only the very wealthy can afford to pay.  

The controversy comes into play when you consider the source of the transplant organs.  So-called “donors” are often impoverished and desperate to meet their family’s basic needs.  A kidney may sell for as much as $5,000, but the donor sees only a fraction of the selling price.  Critics also question the quality of their post-surgical care compared to that of the rich recipient, especially since many donors lack health insurance. 

Transplant tourism also dramatically impacts other patients.  Wealthy recipients often replace them on transplant lists. This extends the poorer patient’s wait time while diminishing their chances of survival.  

Monitoring the Organ Market

The World Health Organization strongly opposes organ trafficking.  It believes transplant organs should only come from deceased donors, and from living donors with a genetic relationship to the patient.  Still, the WHO can only operate in an advisory capacity. It has no avenue for actual enforcement. It’s up to each country to enact its own individual laws, and it’s up to doctors and clinics to operate under their own individual ethics.  Critics within the organization find the lack of enforcement frustrating. They say the incentive for profit often overrides moral and ethical concerns.

The U.S. outlawed organ trafficking back in 1984.  Yet to date, only one person has ever been prosecuted for violating the National Organ Transplant Act.  In 2011, an Israeli national was convicted of brokering kidney sales in New York City. However, neither the doctors who performed the surgeries, nor the transplant recipients suffered any penalty in connection with the case.  

The Donor Debate

Some libertarians argue for legal organ sales on the basis that they “an expression of individual liberty that would allow many patients to regain their health while financially benefiting low-income individuals.”  See Organ traffickers lock up people to harvest their kidneys  The issue is that the profit motive and the forces behind this lucrative trade have resulted in victimization – sometimes extreme – of vulnerable populations. 

Whether or not organ sales are eventually made legal and regulated, donors rights must be protected and safeguards must be put in place to prevent forcible organ harvesting and other horrors.