At the beginning of the 90s, a rumour circulated around the US. It was said that a person, usually a high-class adult man, woke up in an unknown hotel room with a large scar in his belly and found a note saying “you got one kidney removed; if you want to survive, you’d better go to hospital”. This rumour circulated so much that, some years later, the New Orleans Police Department was compelled to officially deny this fact. It was just an urban legend.
Organ theft events against donor’s will do happen, but in a lesser extend than reported by the gutter press or urban legends. However, there are real cases, like the disappearance of babies in Ukraine in 2005, denounced by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or the case denounced by a Spanish nun in Mozambique.
Despite these relatively marginal cases, there is another widespread and somehow accepted organ harvesting market. It is the case of Manila’s slum district of Tondo, in the Philippines. Tondo is one of the poorest and most overpopulated areas in our planet and some residents have decided to sell one of their kidneys or corneas to survive. Sally Gutiérrez, a Spanish director of short documentary films, shot a 15-minute video in 2009 interviewing some of Tondo residents who sold an organ for 1,200 or 1,500 euros. This documentary film is called Organ Market and it shows only one side of this business, the donor’s side, but does not expose the recipients or the intermediaries. However, many interviewees reveal that organ-removal surgery was performed at Saint Luke's Hospital, the most well-known hospital of the Philippines. It is legal? Technically, it became illegal in 2008, when an act was passed banning human organ trafficking in the Philippines, but this documentary film was shot in 2009, so it seems that the situation has not changed. This documentary film was shot following some bioethic researchers of the University of the Philippines, who would pay one euro for each interview to donors. A dozen people appear in this video revealing that they sold a kidney or a cornea and now they suffer serious health problems. A donor’s wife reveals that the money paid for this donation does not even cover her husband’s current medical expenses for his kidney failure, which prevents him from walking. Most interviewees spent this money on a sidecar to work or on a new house of brass, and some of them even consider they are lucky and encourage other residents to sell their organs. Needless to say, you can defend this business by saying that donors are volunteer and nobody forces them to sell their organs, but then you admit that you don’t know what is extreme poverty and how difficult it is to escape from it: you should understand that need can drive people to the point of feeling lucky in such a horrible and inhumane situation.
- New Orleans Police Department press release to deny the urban legend about kidney theft (1997): http://www.mardigrasday.com/police1.html
- About organ trafficking in Ukraine: https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=902701&Site=COE
- About organ trafficking in Mozambique: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3483581.stm
- Tondo, Manila’s slum district in the Philippines: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tondo,_Manila
- About Sally Gutiérrez, the director of this documentary film: http://www.hamacaonline.net/autor.php?id=84
- Organ Market, 15-minute documentary film about organ trafficking in Tondo: http://www.reelport.com/index.php?id=300&L=es&movie_id=22938
- Saint Luke's Hospital, the most important hospital in the Philippines, where organ extraction is performed: http://www.stluke.com.ph/
- Act banning organ trafficking in Philippines, passed in March 2008: http://archive.arabnews.com/?page=4§ion=0&article=124049