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Jeneen Interlandi: Nobody Cares About Organ Trafficking

About the arrest of a handful of rabbis from New York and New Jersey on charges of organ trafficking, I have two things to say: One, I knew it! And two, nobody cares.

When we reported on organ trafficking late last year, my main source for the story, a medical anthropologist by the name of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, told me that a couple of rabbis and synagogues in Brooklyn, N.Y., had been repeatedly been cited by her informants as well-known organ brokers. Nancy has done an extraordinary amount of detective work in the past two decades mapping the organs trade across the globe. She's gone undercover in Turkish slums, tracked down leads in Argentinian mental hospitals, and interviewed potential sources in Israeli prisons. She has also routinely reached out to the FBI and analogous law-enforcement bodies in other countries─usually to no avail. Maybe because she is a mere medical anthropologist, maybe because she had nothing more than word-of-mouth reports (albeit hundreds of pages of them, often from admitted criminals), the FBI did not seem to take her calls seriously (organ-trafficking allegations in yesterday's bust were the byproduct of a larger investigation on money laundering).

And without real prodding from a greater authority than this Berkeley professor, transplant surgeons caught in Nancy's cross hairs have been equally happy to discount her claims. As we wrote back in January, Scheper-Hughes has confronted at least three U.S. hospitals with evidence that their surgeons have been transplanting illegally brokered kidneys. Her field notes include the names of several people picked up in yesterday's raid─people whose charity organizations purported to pair altruistic donors with dialysis patients in need, and who had close working relationships with some very good U.S. hospitals. In response to her charges, and in response to inquiries from NEWSWEEK, officials from those hospitals have insisted that their transplant programs take every precaution against organ trafficking, and that intentional deceit is almost impossible to uncover. The wiretap evidence released yesterday will be less easily dismissed. It will be interesting to see if the FBI or anyone else follows the organ-trafficking trail to these hospitals, or to any number of Web sites that make similar claims of altruism and charity, but have been implicated in the work of Nancy and others.

For obvious reasons, our story names only the hospital where we could substantiate Nancy's claims─with a video, of all things, sent to us by a man who proudly sold his own kidney through an illegal broker.

Which gets me to my second point. The vast majority of readers who responded to our story saw nothing wrong with the idea of organ selling. I received dozens of e-mails (and some calls) from people wanting to know what the big deal was. Several even asked where they could sell their own "extra kidney." (FYI: Just because you can survive without it, doesn't mean it's "extra." Most doctors will tell you that you really ought to keep both, if you can.) Sorry, but this mentality only works if you happen to live in a First World country with a comparatively decent health-care system. Most of the people who sell their organs, through rabbis or gangsters or whoever, don't live in developed countries. And most of them aren't selling their kidneys to get out of credit-card debt or to buy a bigger car. When organ brokers come to their neighborhoods, offering cash for their kidneys or for slices of their liver (or, according to some rumors, for one of their eyes), most of those who sell are doing it so they can buy food, or medicine, or a place to live. You might disagree, but I can't help thinking that a system which forces one to chose between two kidneys and food for their family is an inherently flawed one. And that's not even accounting for the fact that some thug from Jersey posing as a clergy member gets most of the money.

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