The Dark Side of Organ Transplantation

Article excerpt

PROGRESS IN MEDICAL SCIENCE and technology has contributed to the growth of kidney and other organ transplantations around the world. Nevertheless, the gap between the supply and demand for transplantable organs continues to widen. In Europe, the average waiting time is three years and is expected to lengthen to ten years by 2010. With 120,000 patients on chronic dialysis and 40,000 patients waiting in line for a kidney in Western Europe alone, about 15 to 30 percent of these patients will die annually because of organ shortages.

To avoid death, many patients turn to organ trafficking. Unsurprisingly, various untoward individuals see organ shortages as an easy opportunity for money by pressuring the global poor into selling their organs. The potential for large profits drives their interest: kidney sellers are paid approximately $2,500 to $3,000, while recipients pay anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.

To examine this issue, the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics--co-sponsored by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women and the Council of Europe--convened an expert panel discussion, "Intersecting Human Rights Crises: Organ Transplantation and Organ Trafficking" Approximately one hundred people attended, including students, journalists, professors, physicians, and humanists.

During the discussion, various ethical, medical, social, and legal questions were raised, including: whether the poor should provide for the health of the rich, if the price to get out of poverty should be to sacrifice one's health, if poverty should compromise human dignity and health, and whether stopping or inappropriately discouraging organ transplants would contribute to unnecessary deaths.

Professor Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania stated that the organ market was at times unethical and inefficient. This viewpoint was challenged by audience members, who pointed out that the disparity between supply and demand suggests why traffickers would rise to meet a need, though it doesn't necessarily explain why people would reluctantly offer themselves, or a part of themselves, up in exchange for money.

Professor Caplan noted that members of Falun Gong, a banned religious group in China, have long worried that their practitioners in Chinese prisons or labor camps have been used as a source of organs for rich transplant patients. An audience member mentioned an investigative report by David Kilgour, a former member of the Canadian Parliament, and David Matas, a human rights attorney, on their findings concerning these allegations. The report presents various documents, witness testimonies, and phone calls in which Chinese hospitals acknowledged organs from Falun Gong practitioners were available.

Rachel Mayania, UN Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, highlighted the critical importance of poverty to organ trafficking. …