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You had a few too many drinks in a disreputable bar someplace in an otherwise tropical paradise. You don't remember much of last night, only that you are in a bathtub full of ice, and you have some stitches along the sides of your back... is not how organ theft occurs. In the first world it's (mostly) an urban legend, where a group of enterprising thieves steal people's organs and sell them to someone else.
However, this does not mean that organ theft is non-existent.
Deconstructing the legend
Organ donors and recipients need to be compatible; you need a donor of the same blood type, similar genes, and a whole slew of other requirements. It's also important that the organ comes from a relatively healthy donor, as there's not much point in trading kidney failure for AIDS. Organs are very much alive, and will not survive forever outside the human body; kidneys can last for about 36 hours, livers 12 hours, and hearts only 4, so generally speaking you have to be ready to have the surgery at the drop of a hat. Once the operation is done, your body will begin to attack the organ as if it was a foreign invader; to prevent this, immuno-suppressant drugs need to be taken for life. So how much does this normally cost? Well, organ transplants are one of the most expensive operations known to medicine, at anywhere from a quarter million to over a million dollars.
So you find yourself with a big ol' pile of organs. What do you have to do? The checklist:
- Find a matching patient
- Have an adequate location for practicing internal medicine
- Perform a complicated operation with qualified surgeons and support staff
- Hire qualified surgeons that somehow aren't busy doing more ethical work
- Do all this with the infrastructure and networks required without anyone blowing the whistle on you
- Afford the bribes/hired goons to do 'damage control' for when someone does find out about you (on the other hand, more organs!)
- Convince your customers that you actually have some quality control in spite of being a black-market organ dealer
Reconstructing the legend
That said, a lot of shady business goes on with obtaining organs.
Shortage of organ donors
Most countries have a larger demand for organs than supply. Some people have fears that if people check the "organ donor" box when they get a driver's license, if they are injured their doctors will intentionally let them die to harvest their organs, which is not true. (In fact, in Portugal one has to register to be a non-donor after death. By that logic, Portuguese doctors would be allowing a lot of deaths - and malpractice policies would be through the roof.) The result is that a number of people who would otherwise donate might be afraid to agree to become organ donors, which increases the suffering of those currently living. The scarcity of organs can push people to try to buy matching organs, often from somebody in the third world.
China sources a number of organs from recently executed prisoners. However, it's not clear if the prisoners ever agreed to donate their organs. Combined with secret/"random" executions, this leads to the not too far-fetched conspiracy theory that China schedules prisoner executions whenever someone rich/important needs an organ.
A section on "organ pillaging" featured prominently on China Uncensored under the title of "China's Secret Holocaust", a show which was created by practitioners of the Falun Gong cult. Strangely, concerns regarding organ pillaging from Falun Gong practitioners are conspicuously absent from the YouTube channel of China Uncensored which instead focused primarily on prisoners of conscience who were victimized by this practice.
Actual organ theft
Sorry, were you looking for Dick Cheney?
In most cases of real organ theft, a poor person agrees to sell one of their kidneys for, say, $10,000. The person willingly goes to a medical center, and the organ is removed. But after the operation, the person is only paid $1000 (if at all), or may not know what they agreed to. This is a breach of contract and horrible exploitation of people in absolute poverty, obviously, but is not the scenario people tend to imagine.
Not all of the people selling their kidneys are the victims (well, sort of); the hospitals and doctors are often defrauded in the process. Gangs would forge documents claiming that the organ was being donated to a relative, and the hospital would perform the operation while the gang would get a huge profit.
As the world improves fewer people will be desperate enough to be at risk of these sorts of scams.
The trade in human body parts predates modern medicine by millenia. While today you might get the kidney of a biker to gain his urine filtration, warriors of yesteryear might eat the hearts of their enemies to gain their courage (but not their luck or skill in battle, presumably, since it's the losers' hearts being eaten).
If you made the unfortunate decision to be born an albino or pygmy (or an albino pygmy) in Africa, you could find that you are highly valued by your society. Literally: your body parts could be worth up to $75,000, more than what it'd cost to have someone murdered in the developed world[note 1], let alone a part of the world that's dirt poor. Really, while the alties may be a danger to themselves, at least their beliefs won't end up getting you killed. Then again....
- Well, based on what the police "offer" in sting operations against hitmen and/or people looking for hit men, which is in the $5-$10k range, but considering that they catch the people it's probably not an unbiased sample.
- US organ donor website
- From Organdonor.gov
- DMV, Ten most common myths of organ donation
- (in Portuguese) RENNDA - Registo Nacional de Não Dadores ("National Register of Non-Donors")
- Harvesting organs from recently executed prisoners
- All 4 clips available here, courtesy of endorganpillaging.org
- See the Wikipedia article on New Tang Dynasty Television.
- "Living cadavers" in Bangladesh: bioviolence in the human organ bazaar. by M. Moniruzzaman Med Anthropol Q. 2012 Mar;26(1):69-91.
- Growing market for human organs exploits poor by Andy Henion & Monir Moniruzzaman
- Kidney racket at top Delhi hospital, BBC, June 4 2016
- Tanzania albinos murdered for body parts