The market in body parts

fatima-redmarket.jpg A mother shows a photo of her kidnapped daughter in Chennai, India. Photo by Scott Carney via 

First aired on How To Do It (30/7/13)


When you hear the term "selling your body," sex work is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But there are actually hundreds of markets, both legal and illegal, that involve buying, selling and trading the body. Investigative journalist Scott Carney spent six years exploring the dark underworld of the buying and selling of human flesh for his book, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers.

Carney calls the market for body parts the red market, which he defines as "every single way the body gets bought and sold." He initially became aware of the demand for body parts when he was in graduate school and was looking for a quick way to make some extra money. He saw an ad for a clinical trial, signed up and was quickly enrolled in a trial for Viagra. "I felt 'wow, this is really strange, people are renting my body to test it for science'," Carney said to How To Do It hosts Josh Bloch and Sarah Treleaven. "It made me wonder about how the body was beginning to be commodified and what these big pharmaceutical companies were doing profiting on this."

He came across the red market again when he moved to South Asia. "I found people were selling their organs in tsunami refugee camps, people were selling their skeletons." What he found most shocking of all was the trade in children. In India, he learned about children being swiped off the streets and sold to orphanages who would in turn arrange international adoptions for them, for tens of thousands of dollars.

Whether the market Carney was looking at was for body parts like kidneys, livers or entire children, they all had one thing in common. All the markets were driven by desperation: people desperate for body parts and people desperate for money. Often, the poorest people only have their body to sell. In Chennai, India, Carney came across camps of desperate people right next to state-of-the-art hospitals, and "doctors would hire brokers and they'll find somebody who is desperate enough" to sell the organ required for a transplant.

Carney isn't opposed to the buying and selling of body parts, in theory. All things being equal, he believes two people could "both be in a position to make a rational decision" regarding agreeing to a fair price for a kidney or some blood. But that's rarely, if ever, the case. When it comes to buying body parts, Carney said, what "you're really buying desperation. You're not buying a piece of a person where there's an agreeable transaction."

So, what can be done about this? Carney believes the secrecy surrounding the red market is a big problem. When people acquire body parts, even legally, they are not informed about their origin. "Right now the standard for almost all of these markets is anonymity." The recipient needs to trust the system. But according to Carney, this lack of transparency creates opportunity for "really really terrible crimes to occur." If a legal, safe system could be established so interested parties could buy and sell organs without breaking the law, there would need to be greater transparency and a thorough paper trail. "We'd need to know what that supply chain looks like."

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