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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The dark side of organ donation

Monir Moniruzzaman of Michigan State University studied the horrific organ donation practices in Bangladesh, where poor people are coerced into selling their organs to rich recipients. He managed to collect this appalling data by going undercover in some of the poorest areas.

Selling body parts is actually illegal, even in Bangladesh and other parts of the world in which it occurs.  This doesn’t stop organ buyers from advertising in local newspapers.  If questioned by authorities, it’s easy enough to pretend that the organ seller is a relative and deny that he is being compensated. 

A typical scenario goes as follows.  A desperately poor Bangladeshi sees an ad requesting a kidney.  He meets with a broker who promises a huge payment, by the standards of that impoverished community, and often a visa and job in another country. The seller is often misled throughout the proceedings about the function of the kidney, what the removal will entail, and what the recovery will be like.

If the organ seller and buyer are a match, the broker arranges for a fake passport or visa so that the seller can travel to the donation site, which is often in India. Once there, the seller’s passport is confiscated and he’s held captive with other sellers, none of whom are allowed to change their minds about donation.  The sellers receive minimal post-operative care and most cannot afford proper follow-ups.

Most of the sellers end up in far worse shape than they started.  They sold their organs to pave the way for a better life for themselves and their families, but ended up with little to show for it but a giant scar. 27 out of 33 kidney sellers did not receive the payment they’d been promised, let alone the chance for a job in another country.  Many could no longer work at all due to pain and deteriorating health.  Because of the stigma of having sold an organ, many were ashamed to let anyone see their scars, which made them unmarriageable.

To be clear, these abhorrent practices should in no way be compared to legitimately conducted living organ donations.  If properly cared for both during and after surgery, kidney donors go on to enjoy normal healthy lives.  They perform a selfless generous act with little danger to themselves.  That’s not the situation that Moniruzzaman has been describing.

What can be done?  Unfortunately, the situation is grim.  Rich people with the means to buy an essential body part for themselves or their loved ones will try to do so, poor people will do whatever they can to help their families, and unethical brokers will bring those two groups together.