Op-Ed: Inside the global black market for organ trade

Each day, 20 people in the United States die waiting for an organ. The entire system of organ trade is bizarre: sick people hope and pray that someone else will die and be a viable match for an organ transplant. Currently, about 120,000 people in the United States are on the transplant list hoping that they will soon find a match.

Of those 120,000 people, many will not be given the organ that they need. One reason for this shortage of available organs is the general reluctance of many to donate their organs after death. Consequently, desperate patients are forced to take drastic measures, and the lack of organs necessary has fueled a global black market in organs.

This global black market is the strongest in Asia, where many poor people have resorted to donating their organs in order to survive. Countries such as India, Bangladesh, Iran, China and Sri Lanka have become hotbeds for the global organ trade. Wealthy buyers — sometimes from the area, sometimes from Western countries — frequently travel to Asia in the hope that they will find an organ. For the price of $100,000 to $200,000, patients can return home with the organ they need. 

The system may not seem problematic at first glance — some would argue that there is no price to be put on life, and if one has the money, they might as well invest in a transplant rather than be stuck waiting for an organ that may never come. However, the problem is that, most of the time, those who donate their organs to rich buyers are poor people who have no choice. Many organ donors are from the slums and are not receiving enough money to support their families. They assume that organ donation will be a quick way to gain cash and survive.

Giving up an organ for a cash payout is so popular in one village in India, Bindol, that the town has earned the name “Kidney Village.” Since people can survive with one kidney, and because kidney diseases have risen in recent years due to a rise in diabetes, kidneys are the most popular organs traded on the black market. Residents of “Kidney Village” are promised anywhere from 60,000 rupees (about $900) to one lakh (about $1,500) for the exchange of their kidneys. The operation takes place in hospitals with questionable sanitation, and patients are not given any help with the recovery. Donors often have difficulty recovering.

Such is the case for Lakshmiram Hansda, a man from Bindol who sold his kidney for 80,000 rupees. He used the money from his operation to feed his family for a couple months, but the operation drained him of the strength to do manual labor, and he consequently lost his job. Hansda’s wife and daughter deserted him, and now he relies on the help of an NGO and attempts to deal with his declining health.

Unfortunately, Hansda’s story is not unique. A mutual desperation on the part of buyers low on the transplant list and people in the slums has caused this organ trade, and unlike some other illegal actions, the lines between criminal and victim are not straightforward. It is easy from a distance to condemn those who travel to other countries in search of an organ, but it is hard to imagine that many who could afford an illegal transplant would not also resort to desperate measures if forced to survive.

Despite that, it is overwhelmingly clear that the black market is doing more harm than good. It relies on promises that are never fulfilled to clients. Since the entire business is illegal, those who do not receive the money they were promised in exchange for their organ have no recourse to obtain what they thought they would receive.

The rise in black-market organ trade has also fueled a rise in kidnappings. In Bangladesh, six-year-old Harun-ur-Rashid was kidnapped in 2014. His body was found five days later, and both of Rashid’s kidneys were missing. Parents in the village are terrified that the same thing will happen to their children, particularly because corruption has led to an ineffective police force.

While many countries, including Canada, Israel and Spain, are taking steps to fight the organ black market, the United States has yet to make a strong effort to stop its citizens from resorting to obtaining organs from other countries.

Luckily, there are ways in which you can help make fighting organ trafficking a priority. You can sign the SOTN (Stop Organ Trafficking Now) petition and write to your congressmen to make the fight against organ trafficking part of the United States agenda. Visit the site StopOrganTraffickingNow.org for more information.

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