How the market for human organs is destroying lives

In December, Turkish authorities detained a man accused of recruiting desperate Syrian refugees to sell kidneys in exchange for legal protection. The arrest put the focus on a shadowy but thriving industry — the international trade in human organs — and the thorny questions of ethics and equity it raises.

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If you were to need a kidney transplant, for example, what would it mean to purchase one from a living person, possibly a poor person in the global South? In the view of medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes — who directs the research organization Organs Watch and advises international organizations on the topic — you’d be entering “a moral, social, ethical and political gray zone.”

Underground markets run by organ brokers and organ hunters “exploit the desperation of both buyers and sellers,” the UC Berkeley professor writes in the Washington Post.

“Despite what you may have heard from some advocates of compensation for kidneys, the kidney is not a ‘spare’ organ.” Even years after the operation, “sellers suffer from … invisible and long-term medical, psychological and social consequences” — ones that actually leave them worse off economically, she says.

Read Scheper-Hughes’ piece in the Washington Post’s “In Theory” opinion series.