Although sexual exploitation is what comes to mind when most people think of human trafficking, another type of human trafficking has increased in recent years: the illegal sale of human organs on the black market.
As a report last August by Fox News found, the demand for most black market organs comes from wealthy nations such as the United States, some European nations, and parts of Africa and Asia.
According to the World Health Organization, little is known about the illegal organ trade, especially compared to the drug and sex trafficking industry, but it’s estimated that brokers charge between $100,000 and $200,000 to organize illegal organ transplants for wealthy patients.
In a 2004 statement, the WHO said the increase in the international trade in human organs, fueled by growing demand as well as “unscrupulous traffickers,” has prompted a serious need for legislation to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens — those most likely to be tempted to sell their organs.
While the U.S. has legal organ donation and transplant procedures, those with the power of a large bank account are trying to remedy their health problems faster by obtaining an organ replacement themselves through the black market.
“Organ transplantation is a necessary treatment for many individuals whose organs have failed and has been in practice in the United States since the 1950s,” said Dr. David E. Samadi, the vice chairman of the Department of Urology and chief of robotics and minimally invasive surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
But according to a 2004 report from the WHO, the average wait time for an organ transplant was three years. The organization warned that unless something is done to expand the number of people who donate their organs both after they have died and while alive, the time on the waitlist would likely be closer to 10 years by 2010.
Since the supply of organs available in the U.S. has not been able to keep up with the demand, the WHO’s prediction has come true.
“An illegal market has capitalized on these individuals’ desperation and the prospects of large profits are creating unfortunate incentives with patients willing to pay up to $200,000 for a kidney,” Samadi said.
In 2004, The New York Times reported the story of a 48-year-old American woman from Brooklyn who bought a kidney off the black market. Due to the legal implications of the purchase, the Times agreed to keep her identity a secret so she would not jeopardize financial support that helped her maintain her health post-transplant.
She told the Times she had been on dialysis for 15 years and two different kidney transplant lists for seven years. ”Nothing was happening, and my health was getting worse and worse.” Finally, she said, ”my doctors told me to get a kidney any way I could,” or expect to die.
The woman’s husband had relatives in Israel who helped her find a connection to the black market, and she found a donor.
June 2013 estimates from Natural News indicate that about 100,000 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for organ transplants. Of those, a few thousand are expected to die waiting for their organ transplants.
Pennies for a kidney
One of the most common organs sold illegally is the kidney, since most people are born with two but need only one to live. Experts say kidneys are likely the most sought-after organ because they are affected by illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.
Though “donors” are promised as little as $1,000 for a kidney, they often agree to the trade because they are poor, uneducated, unemployed, undocumented immigrants, former soldiers or young people. Donors are often approached by local organized crime groups who are working with corrupt doctors, independent transplant coordinators and transnational organized crime groups.
While the donor may receive very little money for their organs, the groups that sell the organ usually earn a large profit. For example, a 2009 sting by the FBI found that groups were buying organs in Israel for around $10,000 each, then selling them for as much as $160,000 in the U.S.
“The people who gain are the rich transplant patients who can afford to buy a kidney, the doctors and hospital administrators, and the middlemen, the traffickers,” said Jim Feehally, professor of renal medicine at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.
While some “donors” initially agree to give up one of their organs to the highest bidder, many find themselves victims of organized crime — left without their organ or their promised payment.
Those in the medical field are concerned not only for the donors, but for the recipient. The donors are often not screened for diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, that could infect the organ recipient.
While few if any medical tests are performed on the donors, Edward Fox of InSight Crime, a group that studies organized crime, said that a surgeon usually removes the organs.
“Despite the popular urban myth that victims often find themselves post-operation in a bath of ice, having had an organ removed by criminals, this is a common misconception,” he said.
Most black market organs come from countries in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
According to the Costa Rican Immigration Administration, at least seven instances have been recorded so far this year in which organs were extracted from a person and sold on the black market.
Given the high number of organ trafficking cases in Costa Rica, some claim that the nation’s medical tourism industry is really just a front for “transplant tourism.”
However, the organ trafficking industry is alive and well in the U.S., too, since the multibillion-dollar industry benefits doctors, hospitals and drug companies.
According to a report in Prison Planet, the average kidney transplant operation in the U.S. cost about $259,000 in 2008, “netting between $80,000 and $100,000 in insurance reimbursements for hospitals and doctors.”
Because of this large financial incentive, Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, who is participating in a United Nations task force on international organ trafficking, said that not all hospitals screen potential donors to ensure organs are not being sold.
“Some have a pretty cursory examination, like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” Caplan said, adding that other hospitals “don’t look very hard.”
According to Dr. Matthew Coper of the United Network for Organ Sharing, even if a hospital takes responsibility to ensure the donation is legal and consensual by requiring long waiting periods and separate donor and recipient interviews, some paid donors will “slip by our radar screen.”
Coper said that while his hospital does its best to stop fraudulent donors, they only reject one or two donors a year.
In addition to the lack of a universal and thorough process to ensure all donors are willingly donating their organs, some U.S. hospitals and doctors have been accused of killing patients who are on life-support but are known organ donors.
According to a report in Natural News, most donors in the U.S. are victims of severe head trauma. Thought to be near death by medical professionals, a doctor may begin tests to determine whether or not a person is brain dead, and will often begin removing or harvesting a person’s organs while their heart is still beating.