Organ trafficking was long considered a myth. But now mounting evidence suggests it is a real and growing problem, even in America.
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By the time her work brought her back to the United States, Nancy Scheper-Hughes had spent more than a decade tracking the illegal sale of human organs across the globe. Posing as a medical doctor in some places and a would-be kidney buyer in others, she had linked gangsters, clergymen and surgeons in a trail that led from South Africa, Brazil and other developing nations all the way back to some of her own country’s best medical facilities. So it was that on an icy February afternoon in 2003, the anthropologist from the University of California, Berkeley, found herself sitting across from a group of transplant surgeons in a small conference room at a big Philadelphia hospital.
By accident or by design, she believed, surgeons in their unit had been transplanting black-market kidneys from residents of the world’s most impoverished slums into the failing bodies of wealthy dialysis patients from Israel, Europe and the United States. According to Scheper-Hughes, the arrangements were being negotiated by an elaborate network of criminals who kept most of the money themselves. For about $150,000 per transplant, these organ brokers would reach across continents to connect buyers and sellers, whom they then guided to “broker-friendly” hospitals here in the United States (places where Scheper-Hughes says surgeons were either complicit in the scheme or willing to turn a blind eye). The brokers themselves often posed as or hired clergy to accompany their clients into the hospital and ensure that the process went smoothly. The organ sellers typically got a few thousand dollars for their troubles, plus the chance to see an American city.
As she made her case, Scheper-Hughes, a diminutive 60-something with splashes of pink in her short, grayish-brown hair, slid a bulky document across the table—nearly 60 pages of interviews she had conducted with buyers, sellers and brokers in virtually every corner of the world. “People all over were telling me that they didn’t have to go to a Third World hospital, but could get the surgery done in New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles,” she says. “At top hospitals, with top surgeons.” In interview after interview, former transplant patients had cited the Philadelphia hospital as a good place to go for brokered transplants. Two surgeons in the room had also been named repeatedly. Scheper-Hughes had no idea if those surgeons were aware that some of their patients had bought organs illegally. She had requested the meeting so that she could call the transgression to their attention, just in case.
Hospital officials told NEWSWEEK that after meeting with Scheper-Hughes, they conducted an internal review of their transplant program. While they say they found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of their surgeons, they did tighten some regulations, to ensure better oversight of foreign donors and recipients. “But that afternoon,” Scheper-Hughes says, “they basically threw me out.”
It’s little wonder. The exchange of human organs for cash or any other “valuable consideration” (such as a car or a vacation) is illegal in every country except Iran. Nonetheless, international organ trafficking—mostly of kidneys, but also of half-livers, eyes, skin and blood—is flourishing; the World Health Organization estimates that one fifth of the 70,000 kidneys transplanted worldwide every year come from the black market. Most of that trade can be explained by the simple laws of supply and demand. Increasing life spans, better diagnosis of kidney failure and improved surgeries that can be safely performed on even the riskiest of patients have spurred unprecedented demand for human organs. In America, the number of people in need of a transplant has nearly tripled during the past decade, topping 100,000 for the first time last October. But despite numerous media campaigns urging more people to mark the backs of their driver’s licenses, the number of traditional (deceased) organ donors has barely budged, hovering between 5,000 and 8,000 per year for the last 15 years.
In that decade and a half, a new and brutal calculus has emerged: we now know that a kidney from a living donor will keep you alive twice as long as one taken from a cadaver. And thanks to powerful antirejection drugs, that donor no longer needs to be an immediate family member (welcome news to those who would rather not risk the health of a loved one). In fact, surgeons say that a growing number of organ transplants are occurring between complete strangers. And, they acknowledge, not all those exchanges are altruistic. “Organ selling has become a global problem,” says Frank Delmonico, a surgery professor at Harvard Medical School and adviser to the WHO. “And it’s likely to get much worse unless we confront the challenges of policing it.”
For Scheper-Hughes, the biggest challenge has been convincing people that the problem exists at all. “It used to be a joke that came up at conferences and between surgeons,” she says. “In books and movies, you find these stories of people waking up in bathtubs full of ice with a scar where one of their kidneys used to be. People assumed it was just science fiction.” That assumption has proved difficult to dismantle. In the mid-1980s, rumors that Americans were kidnapping children throughout Central America only to harvest their organs led to brutal attacks on American tourists in the region. When those stories proved false, the State Department classified organ-trafficking reports under “urban legend.” Scheper-Hughes’s evidence, which is largely anecdotal and comes in part from interviews with known criminals, has not convinced department officials otherwise. “It would be impossible to successfully conceal a clandestine organ-trafficking ring,” Todd Leventhal, the department’s countermisinformation officer, wrote in a 2004 report, adding that stories like the ones Scheper-Hughes tells are “irresponsible and totally unsubstantiated.” In recent years, however, the WHO, Human Rights Watch and many transplant surgeons have broken with that view and acknowledged organ trafficking as a real problem.
At first, not even Scheper-Hughes believed the rumors. It was in the mid-1980s, during a study of infant mortality in the shantytowns of northern Brazil, that she initially caught wind of mythical “body snatcher” stories: vans of English-speaking foreigners would circle a village rounding up street kids whose bodies would later be found in trash bins removed of their livers, eyes, kidneys and hearts.
When colleagues in China, Africa and Colombia reported similar rumblings, Scheper-Hughes began poking around. Some stories—especially the ones about kidnapped children, stolen limbs and tourists murdered for organs—were clearly false. But it was also clear that slums throughout the developing world were full of AWOL soldiers, desperate parents and anxious teenage boys willing to part with a kidney or a slice of liver in exchange for cash and a chance to see the world—or at least to buy a car.
Before long, Scheper-Hughes had immersed herself in an underworld of surgeons, criminals and those eager to buy or sell whatever body parts could be spared. In Brazil, Africa and Moldova, newspapers advertised the sale and solicitation of human body parts while brokers trolled the streets with $100 bills, easily recruiting young sellers. In Istanbul, Scheper-Hughes posed as an organ buyer and talked one would-be seller down to $3,000 for his “best kidney.” In some of these countries, as the WHO later quantified, 60 to 70 percent of all transplant surgeries involved the transfer of organs from those countries’ citizens to “transplant tourists” who came from the developed world.
But not all organs flowed from poor countries to rich ones; Americans, for example, were both buyers and sellers in this global market. A Kentucky woman once contacted Scheper-Hughes looking to sell her kidney or part of her liver so that she could buy some desperately needed dentures. And a Brooklyn dialysis patient purchased his kidney from Nick Rosen, an Israeli man who wanted to visit America.
Unlike some organ sellers, who told of dingy basement hospitals with less equipment than a spartan kitchen, Rosen found an organ broker through a local paper in Tel Aviv who arranged to have the transplant done at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. An amateur filmmaker, Rosen documented a portion of his odyssey on camera and sent the film to Scheper-Hughes, whose research he had read about online. The video excerpt that NEWSWEEK viewed shows Rosen meeting his broker and buyer in a New York coffee shop where they haggle over price, then entering Mount Sinai and talking with surgeons—one of whom asks him to put the camera away. Finally, after displaying his post-surgery scars for the camera, Rosen is seen rolling across a hotel bed covered in $20 bills; he says he was paid $15,000. (Brokers, on the other hand, typically net around $50,000 per transplant, after travel and other expenses. In America, some insurance plans will cover at least a portion of the donor’s medical expenses.)
The money changed hands outside the hospital’s corridors, and Rosen says that he deliberately misled the Mount Sinai doctors, but that no one there challenged him. “One hospital in Maryland screened us out,” he says. Tom Diflo, a transplant surgeon at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, points out that many would-be donors do not pass the psychological screening, and that attempting to film the event would probably have set off an alarm bell or two. “But the doctors at Mount Sinai were not very curious about me,” Rosen says. “We told them I was a close friend of the guy who I sold my kidney to, and that I was donating altruistically, and that was pretty much the end of it.” Citing privacy laws, Mount Sinai officials declined to comment on the details of Rosen’s case. But spokesperson Ian Michaels says that the hospital’s screening process is rigorous and comprehensive, and assesses each donor’s motivation. “All donors are clearly advised that it is against the law to receive money or gifts for being an organ donor,” he says. “The pretransplant evaluation may not detect premeditated and skillful attempts to subvert and defraud the evaluation process.”
Because many people do donate organs out of kindness, altruism provides an easy cover for those seeking to profit. And U.S. laws can be easy to circumvent, especially for foreign patients who may pay cash and are often gone in the space of a day. Diflo, who has worked in numerous transplant wards over the past two decades, says that while they are in the minority, hospitals that perform illegal transplants certainly exist in the United States. “There are a couple places around that have reputations for doing transplants with paid donors, and then some hospitals that have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he says. “It’s definitely happening, but it’s difficult to ferret out.”
Diflo became an outspoken advocate for reform several years ago, when he discovered that, rather than risk dying on the U.S. wait list, many of his wealthier dialysis patients had their transplants done in China. There they could purchase the kidneys of executed prisoners. In India, Lawrence Cohen, another UC Berkeley anthropologist, found that women were being forced by their husbands to sell organs to foreign buyers in order to contribute to the family’s income, or to provide for the dowry of a daughter. But while the WHO estimates that organ-trafficking networks are widespread and growing, it says that reliable data are almost impossible to come by. “Nancy has done truly courageous work, literally risking her life to expose these networks,” says Delmonico. “But anecdotes are impossible to quantify.”
Scheper-Hughes acknowledges that in gathering these anecdotes she has frequently bumped up against the ethical boundaries of her own profession. While UC Berkeley (which funds most of her work) granted special permission for her to go undercover, she still takes heat from colleagues: misrepresenting oneself to research subjects violates a cardinal rule of academic research. “I expect my methods to be met with criticism,” she says. “But being an anthropologist should not mean being a bystander to crimes against the vulnerable.”
While Rosen has fared well since the surgery—he recovered quickly, used the money to travel and stays in touch with his kidney recipient via Facebook—most of the donors Scheper-Hughes and her colleagues have spoken with are not so lucky. Studies show that the health risks posed by donating a kidney are negligible, but those studies were all done in developed countries. “Recovery from surgery is much more difficult when you don’t have clean water or decent food,” says Scheper-Hughes. And research on the long-term effects of organ donation—in any country—is all but nonexistent.
Last may, Scheper-Hughes once again found herself sitting across from a group of transplant surgeons. This time they were not as incredulous. More than 100 of them had come from around the world to Istanbul for a global conference on organ trafficking. Together, they wrote and signed the Declaration of Istanbul, an international agreement vowing to stop the commodification of human organs. But unless their document is followed by action, it will be no match for the thriving organ market. Even as illegal trade is exposed, a roster of Web sites promising to match desperate dialysis patients with altruistic strangers continues to proliferate unchecked. These sites have some surgeons worried. “We have no way to tell if money is changing hands or not,” says Diflo. “People who need transplants end up trying to sell themselves to potential donors, saying, ‘I have a nice family, I go to church,’ etc. Is that really how we want to allocate organs?”
Maybe not. But in the United States, the average wait time for a kidney is expected to increase to 10 years by 2010. Most dialysis patients die in half that time, and the desperate don’t always play by the rules.