NI Global Issues for Learners of English > The Issues > Human Organs for Sale


Human organs for sale

A World Market for Organs

A new market is growing fast in today's global economy: the market in human organs that are used for transplants. During the last thirty years, organ transplants have become more and more common. As the demand for organs increases, there is a need to find more donors. Some organs are taken from bodies as soon as the person is 'dead'. Some organs, mainly kidneys, can be taken from living people.

Most of the organs that come from living donors go from the world's less powerful people to more powerful people:

  • from South to North
  • from poor to rich
  • from black and brown to white
  • from female to male.

ORGAN: (n) a part of the body, for example: the heart, the brain, the kidney.

TRANSPLANT: (n&v) surgery where an organ is taken from one person and given to another.

DONOR: (n) the person that the organ is taken from.

KIDNEYS: (n) People have two kidneys. They are small organs in the lower part of the back. They clean waste from the blood and make urine.

Japan: not enough donors

Local religious and cultural values also play an important role in the supply of organs. In Japan, people's beliefs about brain death mean that there are not many donors inside the country. For many years rich Japanese who wanted transplants asked gangs of criminals (called the 'body mafia') to find kidney donors in other countries. About ten years ago, journalists found one of these gangs working through an important medical center in Boston, USA.

The Japanese also travelled to Taiwan or Singapore where they could buy organs taken from prisoners who had been executed. However, these prisoners had not agreed to donate their organs. In 1994 the World Medical Association said it was wrong to take organs from dead prisoners and so this practice was banned.

BRAIN DEATH: (n) when the brain stops working properly, even though the heart is still working.

EXECUTED: (pp) If someone is executed by a country, they are killed as punishment for a crime.

China: organs are taken from executed prisoners

The only country that still transplants organs from executed prisoners is China. Most of these organs are sold for a very high price to medical 'visitors' from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore. One doctor even admitted that she had removed both kidneys from a prisoner the night before he was executed.

Amnesty International reported that China has recently started a very hard anti-crime campaign. As a result, the number of people who have been executed has greatly increased, and includes people found guilty of small theft and cheating on their taxes. Some experts believe that China is doing this so that it has more organs for sale.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: an organization that works for human rights.

India: poor people sell their kidneys

Donors in India are usually poor people who sell one of their kidneys while they are still alive. The buyers are mostly people from the rich countries of the Arabian Gulf. Poor people sell one of their kidneys to pay debts, to pay for necessary surgery, or for other family needs. Many poor villagers even expect that they will have to sell a kidney to provide a dowry for their daughters.

The Indian government tried to stop this trade in 1997 by making it illegal. In fact, the organ trade is probably increasing, but now it has gone 'underground' and is controlled by crime gangs. There are also stories of organ theft, where people are told they need a small operation but one of their kidneys is removed instead.

DOWRY: (n) Money that parents pay to the man who marries their daughter.

ILLEGAL: (adj) If something is illegal, it is against the law; it is a crime.

'UNDERGROUND': (adj) A word used for secret criminal activity.

Brazil: another country where people sell their kidneys
In Brazil, it is common to buy and sell kidneys, although people try to make it look less commercial. Private arrangements are made between the donor and the person who wants the kidney. The donors may pretend to be relatives. Many doctors are comfortable performing the operations and ask no questions. As one doctor in Rio de Janeiro said: "I don't want to know what kind of private exchanges have taken place between my [kidney] patients and their [living] donors. But obviously you have to suspect something when the patient is a wealthy Rio socialite and her 'donor' is a poor, barefoot 'cousin' from the country."

COMMERCIAL: (adj) Something that is done for money.

BAREFOOT: (adj) Without shoes - used for someone who is poor.

Brazil: A new law - everyone is a donor

Like India, Brazil has made a new law to try to stop the trade in human organs. But this law is different. It does not ban the sale of organs: instead it says that every adult Brazilian becomes an organ donor when they die, unless they get a special identity card that says they are not a donor. The idea behind this law is that there will be many organs available for transplant and so nobody will need to buy one.

However, many ordinary Brazilian people see the law in a different way. They are worried that greedy doctors and health workers will take advantage of the new law. As one man explained, "Now we are doubly afraid of being hit by a car. We were always afraid of crazy drivers. Now we have to worry about ambulance workers who have been paid to say that we are dead when, really, we are not." For this reason many people have got new identity cards to show they are not donors, and more and more people are opposing the new law.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF: (v) If you take advantage of something, you use it to help yourself, or to get something for yourself.

The United States: Organ contracts?
In the United States, the American Medical Association (AMA) is trying to start a project for selling human organs. The AMA believes that most Americans will not donate their organs (except, perhaps, to people in their family) unless they are paid. The AMA's idea is that people can sign a contract while they are alive, promising that their organs can be transplanted when they die. In exchange, the donor names another person who will receive money if the organs are used. The AMA hopes that it will be able to try the project in 1998, even though many American doctors are not comfortable with the idea.

CONTRACT: (n) An agreement in law.

AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (AMA): The largest organization of doctors in the United States.

Buying and selling organs: is it right or wrong?
Are parts of our body really just things that can be bought and sold? Or are they somehow different and special? One Japanese sociologist, T. Awaya, warns that we are beginning to look at each others' bodies greedily, as a way of getting new parts to make our own lives longer. He calls it "social or 'friendly' cannibalism." Awaya does not say transplants are wrong, but he would like people to think about this subject very carefully. CANNIBALISM: (n) Eating other human beings.

The article entitled "The New Cannibalism" by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, on which this was based, appeared in the April 1998 issue of the New Internationalist. The original article is available at the NI site on the Web.

Copyright 1998: the New Internationalist

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Last Modified: 14 Sept 1998

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