Dispelling the myth. The realities of organ trafficking. Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes in interview.

Dispelling the myth. The realities of organ trafficking. Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes in interview.


“Part of it is to get out from under the idea that this is all mythical” says Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, speaking from the headquarters of Organs Watch, an organisation founded in 1999, operating out of the University of California, and with a research presence in over a dozen countries . Indeed, the myths surrounding organ trafficking are profuse both in the 'developed' and 'developing' worlds. We're all familiar with the urban legend of the tourist who takes a drink offered in a bar and next wakes up in a bath of blood stained ice, an incision in his side, and a note saying “your kidney's been removed – get to a hospital!”, a dramatic image that obscures the real facts. Wealthy, in relative terms, western tourists are the group least at risk in the real system of organ trafficking. The people most at risk in the global system of organ trafficking are the impoverished, at the fringes, and, for the most part, from the slums and shanty towns of the developing world.

The origins and development of Scheper-Hughes' involvement in the study of organ trafficking are instructive, illustrating many of the misconceptions and red herrings that allow the worldwide system to continue. As an anthropologist, her second major study which resulted in the book Death without weeping was a two year project examining everyday violence in Brazil. In the midst of very real violence, she was surprised at some of the concerns expressed by those she interviewed: “I was confused, because there were so many forms of real violence; death squads were quite active; there were paramilitary people involved with off-duty police, involved with former military types who were doing a type of ethnic cleansing of poor black men and street kids in the community”, she explains, “but what they [people in the community] wanted to talk about was their incredible fear that their bodies were at risk, or those of their children, of being kidnapped by an organ mafia. This urban legend you might say of organ stealing”. She returned to the theme, after the publication of Death without weeping, working on the premise that “often where there's smoke, there's fire”, and published an influential paper, Theft of Life, where she elaborated that “there was probably somewhat of a symbolic substitution in the minds of the people about the fact that there was in fact a market, an illegal and clandestine market, in children for adoption”. She had looked at this, as part of her study, and found that many of the children were taken under pressure, by employers or the owners of sugar mills etc. ”Many of the babies that were taken were very sick, or were very ethnically Afro-Brazilian, some of them had AIDS” she continues,”People started questioning, why do they want these babies? Clearly, rich white people oversees must want them for their organs. So there was a certain logic as to why they thought this was the case”.

The reaction to the paper was huge, with anthropologists from all over the world contacting her, to let her know that they had encountered the self-same stories in their regions. “I began to see a sort of political formation that was happening. You could map the rumour and see that it was tied especially to states going through civil war or genocide.” So, looking at this wider pattern, she developed a new theory: “maybe it can be seen as a sort of incohate testifying by illiterate people on the margins, who don't have other discourses to fall back upon, but who recognise that their bodies are not safe under these regimes, where there's torture, disappearances and so forth”.

At the same time, she was invited to be the sole anthropologist on the Bellagio Task Force, a body set up to report on transplantation, bodily integrity, and the international traffic in organs. Working as part of the task force, she soon came to realise, by talking to transplant doctors, that “there was trouble in the system”, and that in fact the buying and selling of organs was real, and spreading, whether it be in India, China (where, as admitted by Chinese Transplant surgeons, the authorities remove organs from executed prisoners, for the market. Scheper-Hughes has spoken to New York surgeons who have used organs from this self-same source), South Africa, Brazil or the Middle East. “I found out from the transplant surgeons that these weren't just allegations but that they were true, and that organ trafficking amongst living people was spreading.” And so began a new phase of research ”I began by following the rumours, before I started following the bodies. My primary aim is to disabuse the world of the notion that this is just a rumour. It is actually happening, though not in the way that the rumour suggest, and I actually do believe that the rumour was circulated in part by the transplant profession. That it's kept it going so that there would be diversion of attention from the things that are actually going on in transplant.”

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