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The Black Market Trade in Human Organs

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Liver transplant surgery.

Liver transplant surgery.

Illegal Organ Transplants

Since the 1950s, organ transplant surgery has saved countless lives, but today the demand for replacement organs far outstrips the supply. Enter some particularly odious characters who have no scruples about stealing organs from unsuspecting donors and then selling them to no-questions-asked doctors for implantation to patients with deep pockets.

The Human Organ Shortage

The United Pledge Against Child Trafficking says “The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 100,000 organ transplants are performed across the world every year.” However, the demand for transplant procedures is 10 times greater.

Medical news and information website WebMD says the wait time for a kidney transplant in the United States can be “seven to 10 years” and that “As of October 2021, about 106,800 people were on the waiting list nationwide for organs of all types.”

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom says that “For patients who are initially placed on the Routine list, the average wait for a deceased donor heart transplant in the U.K. is 18-24 months.”

In Canada, the Institute for Health Information notes that “As of December 31, 2021, a total of 4,043 Canadians were on wait-lists to receive a transplant. In 2021, a total of 652 Canadians were removed from the organ transplant wait list. Of these, 38 percent had died while waiting.”

CBS News reports that U.S. “government estimates show 18 people die each day waiting for a transplant, and every 10 minutes someone is added to the transplant list.”

“Died while waiting” is a dire outcome and it prompts people with the wherewithal to look for shortcuts.

“Even though it is illegal in most countries, some estimates indicate that trafficked organs account for up to 10% of organ transplants performed around the world, with profits conservatively estimated to be between US$840 million to US$1.7 billion annually.”

— Parliament of Canada

Transplant Tourism

Facing a long wait list, people with money sometimes choose to go overseas where a replacement kidney—the organ most in demand—can be had almost immediately. Less frequent transplants involve corneas and a lobe of a liver. The centers for this trade are China, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan.

The obvious question is: Where do the transplanted organs come from? Most are bought from people who are desperately poor; very few people are so altruistic as to hand over kidney to a complete stranger for free. It's the exchange of money that makes the business possible.

In countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, it's illegal to buy organs for transplantation, but in a few other nations, authorities tend not to notice it is going on. Iran is the outlier that allows donors to sell organs to recipients, but the transaction has to be between citizens.

It's an activity that is sometimes bad for both the donor and the recipient.

From the donor's perspective, it's quite possible to live a normal life with just one of the two kidneys that nature gives us. Dr. Arthur Caplan is with New York University. He says “The data shows that you can do okay, but if you do get a kidney injury or something happens, you are in trouble. Your biological life insurance is gone.”

On the recipient side of the deal, problems crop up. First, the screening of donors is not as rigorous as it would be in Los Angeles or Toronto; so recipients might be getting a kidney that is already compromised. Second, operating procedures and post-surgical care are likely to be below the standards required in, say, Vancouver or Washington. The result is that transplant recipients sometimes don't fare well.

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A study by doctors at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital found that “People who obtained a kidney transplant outside Canada, then returned for after-care at a Toronto hospital, were three to four times as likely to die or lose the organ as those transplanted here, the researchers found” (National Post). Similar findings have turned up in other jurisdictions.

The Dark World of Organ Sales

Involuntary Organ Donations

People who pay large sums of money for organ transplants argue they are taking themselves off wait lists in their home countries and that both them and the donors are engaged in a mutually beneficial transaction. That may be true, but a large number of organs are harvested from unwilling donors. And doctors inserting donated organs don't always ask where they came from.

In India, Dr. Amit Kumar became known as Dr. Horror. For 20 years, he ran an illegal organ transplant business that involved between 400 and 500 “donors.” Reuters reports that “Many victims complained they were taken to the house with promises of a job, and then duped or forced at gunpoint to sell their kidneys.

“Labourers, many who gathered every day in parts of Gurgaon to look for any kind of job, were offered around 50,000 rupees ($1,250) for their kidneys. They were sold to wealthy clients for 10 times as much.”

Recipients came from Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, as well as India. In 2008, Dr. Horror got a seven-year prison sentence.

According to the Coalition for Organ Failure Solutions, the typical kidney donor in the black market is a 29-year-old male with an annual income of $480, while the typical recipient is a 48-year-old male with an income of $53,000.

The self-styled “Robin Hood of kidneys” was running a scheme that harvested organs from vulnerable people in Israel for sale to Americans. The donors were paid $10,000 and the recipients charged $100,000; the transplants took place in U.S. hospitals. The man behind the racket was Rabbi Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, an Israeli citizen; he received a two-year prison sentence in Trenton, New Jersey in 2012.

More recently, in June 2022, Ike Ekweremadu was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport and charged with “conspiring to transport a boy to the U.K. in order to harvest organs” (BBC). Ekweremadu is no ordinary bog-standard crook, he is a Nigerian senator who has served as Deputy President of his country's senate. The 15-year-old boy has been taken into care.

Organs are illegally taken from dead people and trafficked. China is known to harvest organs from people it has executed and the terrorist group ISIS likely sells the organs of its victims. It would be naïve to believe that people are not killed for their organs.

In 2016, former Canadian politician David Kilgour and his colleagues released a report in which they allege the Chinese government kills people for their organs: “The ultimate conclusion is that the Chinese Communist Party has engaged the state in the mass killings of innocents, primarily practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises, Falun Gong, but also Uyghurs, Tibetans, and select House Christians, in order to obtain organs for transplants.”

China, notorious for its trade in untruths, denies the allegation.

China's Vibrant Organ Trade

Bonus Factoids

  • There's a famous urban legend in which two people meet in a hotel bar. They are attracted to each other and go back to one of their rooms. The next morning, one of them wakes up naked in a bathtub filled with water and ice and a painful scar on their side. There is a note beside the tub that says “Seek medical attention immediately.” According to the story, the person in the bathtub has been drugged and robbed of a kidney. No matter how many times the story is passed on it isn't true. It's an urban legend that cannot be killed off.
  • In May 2015, there was a riot in California's Solano State Prison. When it was over, the roll call found that inmate Nicholas Rodriguez was missing. After 15 hours, his body was found in a garbage can; he had been sawed almost in half and most of his internal organs were missing. Was the riot a distraction to allow someone to dissect the body of Rodriguez? And, how were the organs spirited out of a medium-security prison without being seen? Were the missing organs transplanted into wealthy recipients? Answers to these questions have not been forthcoming.
  • Megan Hess ran a funeral home in Colorado. In July 2022, she entered a guilty plea to charges she stole and sold hundreds of body parts and even whole bodies. She sold the cadavers and other remains to people using them for educational, medical, and scientific purposes.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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