In the early days of the Organs Watch project, when I was first looking into the rumours of ‘body snatching’ and ‘organ stealing’ among shantytown dwellers in northeast Brazil, my husband, then a clinical social worker at a large US paediatric hospital, returned home one evening elated and deeply moved. He had witnessed a paediatric transplant that had saved the life of a mortally ill youngster.
Michael was almost beside himself in sharing the miraculous event. Distracted, I looked up from my writing desk and replied: ‘Really! Whose organ?’ My husband’s anger at my ‘heartless’ question, something only an oddball anthropologist would even think to ask, made me realize that, to the contrary, it was a question that had to be asked.
My naïve question and my equally naïve method – ‘follow the bodies!’ – brought me to police morgues, hospital mortuaries, medical-legal institutes, intensive care units, dialysis units, blood labs and organ banks all over the world. I traced the missing link – the ‘blood diamond’ of the organ trafficking world – the fresh kidneys, which came across borders safely packaged in their warm, living containers. I met the ‘kidney mules’, recruited by brokers in slums, refugee camps and mental institutions, and the outlaw surgeons and traffickers behind the illegal flow of human traffic. This edition of New Internationalist reveals the damage wreaked by the criminal organ trade, and looks at what it might take to combat it.
Elsewhere in the magazine, Amy Hall meets the activists suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the Argument on banning religious methods of slaughter goes behind the clamour of the proposed Danish ban.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes for the New Internationalist co-operative.