Organs on the Net
October 4, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: The internet has evolved not just as a medium, but also as a marketplace -- most notably for books and consumer electronics, but also via such auction sites as eBay, damn near everything else. Among the merchandise bartered in cyberspace, human organs. According to University of California at Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Shepherd Hughes [sp?] who tracks the organ trade worldwide, it is a category of commerce that can thrive only on the internet -- even if it didn't begin there.
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES I was working in Brazil as a medical anthropologist, and I saw that there would be in the want ads little notices like one from Manuel Da Silva [sp?] who says, you know, I'm a, a man in dire straits; I have a wife and 4 children, and I can't feed them -- so I will sell -- I remember so well the wording -- I will sell any organ of which I have two and the removal of which will not cause my immediate demise. This man probably had a letter-writer; rather Victorian phrasing. And those kinds of ads really proliferated in many poor areas of the world, so people found their matches originally just by using these newspapers. How the internet has helped is that a great deal of buying and selling and transplanting of organs combines the most incredible list of people -- that is, you'll have a buyer in Canada or the United States; a broker in Turkey. You may have a bank account in Italy or a bank account in Taiwan. And the patient who's going to provide the organ may be flying in to another country from Nigeria. You will meet him, let's say, in South Africa to actually have this transplant. So I, it's just something that could not be done without fast communication through internet, through e-mail expediting this.
BOB GARFIELD:Is this really an internet issue any more than the proliferation of pornography is an internet issue? It's something that pre-dated the internet.
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES Let me put it this way: organ selling doesn't go back that far. I mean in time. The first evidence that people were sel-- bel--buying and selling their organs is about 12 years ago. You know in a way the kidney selling has evolved with mass communication, with the internet -- so they've kind of grown up together. And in terms of finding and locating the people to buy these kidneys, that's where the internet is very significant and important.
BOB GARFIELD: It's the convergence of the internet as a medium and the internet as a marketplace, and--
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES Right.
BOB GARFIELD:-- if technology has created the circumstances for this black market to exist, is there a technological solution for it? Can't these transactions be monitored somehow by groups like yours and by law enforcement?
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES Well I do make the information I have available, yet I can't say that there's a great deal of energy going into trying to interrupt it. I reported to the Ministry of Health in the Philippines about a very, very interesting internet called Livers for You -you know, like Toys for Us -- [LAUGHTER] this is Livers for You. It basically says that if you have about 120,000 dollars, we will guarantee you a liver or a kidney -- a little bit more, it says, if it's a living person -- but we'll get you a cadaver liver or kidney if necessary -- if you're willing to travel to Thailand or the Philippines. And they say that if, you know, you really want to look into how well-established our transplant centers are, they say call the American Consulate in the Philippines; call the Catholic Church in the Philippines or call the National Kidney Institute in Manila, and they will tell you that our transplant surgeons were trained primarily in the United States and we're going to put you up in a 5 star hotel. So why wait for a morgue organ for 5 years when you can come here and in a matter of days we can get you the liver or the kidney that you want?
BOB GARFIELD: Call now and we'll also give you--
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES Yeah!
BOB GARFIELD: -- a hypothalamus!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: It's-- shocking!
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHESSo it is, and there just is a sense I think of despair in the transplant profession internationally about -- from their perspective -- the perpetual scarcity of organs that are needed and the fact that the waiting lists in the First World are growing so that you'll have, at any one given point in the United States as many as 70,000 people on one waiting list or another. And so I think they feel if people are willing to take the risk to involve in-- themselves in these deals it's one less person that we have to deal with on a waiting list.
BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Shepherd Hughes, thank you very much.
NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES Okay. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Nancy Shepherd Hughes is an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley and director of Organs Watch, an international group that monitors the sale of human organs.