National News

Fact Vs. Fiction: Organ And Tissue Trafficking

By Starla Muhammad -Managing Editor- | Last updated: Jul 12, 2017 - 1:34:01 AM

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When news breaks about a body discovered with missing internal organs or body parts, reactions vary but inevitably include fear of the possibility of a nefarious plot or plan for the procurement of the person’s organs or tissue.

Are people really being targeted, lured and possibly killed for their organs in the United States? Or is this illegal, unethical and unseemly practice relegated solely to so-called Third World countries?

What is the truth about illegal organ and tissue trafficking?

Organ and tissue transplants have undoubtedly saved millions of lives and is a necessary and needed medical procedure in many cases. Blacks and other minorities are disproportionately low in numbers when it comes to being organ donors as well as recipients.

When major league baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew’s daughter Michelle, 18, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1995, doctors said her only chance of possible survival was a bone marrow transplant.

Neither her father, a Black man of Panamanian and West Indian descent, her mother a White woman of Russian-Jewish descent nor her sisters were matches. At that time, only five percent of registered donors were Black and no match could be found. Michelle died, seven months after her diagnosis. Twenty-two people die each day in the U.S. from the lack of available organs for a transplant, notes the American Transplant Foundation.

Despite advances in medicine and technology and increased awareness about organ donation and transplantation, there continues to be a gap between supply and demand, notes the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

According to the group’s website, as of July 6 in the U.S. there were 14,075 organ transplants performed so far in 2017. Close to 118,000 people were in need of a lifesaving organ transplant with nearly 76,000 of them on active waiting lists. But, there were only 6,600 total donors as of July 6. Organs and tissue can be harvested from live donors or cadavers.

But there is also the seedier underbelly of what is known as illegal organ and tissue trafficking where profits matter over patients.

Dr. Bahar Bastni, professor of Internal Medicine in the Nephrology Division and transplant physician at the St. Louis University School of Medicine
“As far as the poor people in society and that’s where the big market (is), there’s a big need and its life or death, there’s going to be cheating and the black market trades (is) when the supply is much less than the need in society,” said Dr. Bahar Bastni, professor of Internal Medicine in the Nephrology Division and transplant physician at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.

“Trafficking live human beings or even cadavers for organs, body parts and tissue does in fact occur and there are documented U.S. cases. While stories of people waking up in a bathtub full of ice only to discover a surgical scar and that one of their kidneys was stolen and sold on the black market is a story that is more myth than reality, the fact remains that organ harvesting otherwise known as organ trafficking, is a real and thriving industry,” wrote Lindsey Wagner in a November 2014 article on titled, “Organ Trafficking: More Than Just a Myth.”

A host of individuals including recruiters, donors, medical professionals and brokers are necessary to carry out these illegal activities, she explained. “Rarely are all the members of this process ever exposed so it is impossible to know just how large the trade may be,” noted Ms. Wagner.

Dr. Bastni has written, presented and researched extensively on the problem of “transplant tourism,” defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as cross-border travel by any participant including recipients, donors or surgeons for the purpose of obtaining an organ in exchange for cash or goods.

“Rich countries are the buyers, poor countries are the sellers,” Dr. Bastni told The Final Call.   

According to Dr. Bastni, the top organ exporting countries include: India, Pakistan, Philippines, China, Bolivia, Brazil, Iraq, Israel, Moldova, Peru and Turkey. The top organ importing countries include: Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, UK and the U.S. China has been slammed for harvesting organs from prisoners. According to the WHO, over 10,000 black market organ transplants happen each year and thousands illegally sell their kidneys each year.

Americans and immigrants in the U.S. and abroad have been caught up in this illegal industry. Buying and selling organs is against the law in Peru but in 2009, a 68-year-old American man promised a 23-year-old poor immigrant from Peru an apartment and job in New York if he would donate one of his kidneys. During the surgery performed in Nicaragua surgeons severed the young man’s artery while removing his kidney and he bled to death. The American died two months later in the same hospital. 

A 2009 corruption scheme in New York led to the arrest of five rabbis, three New Jersey mayors and two state assemblymen and included among other charges, the illegal sales of body parts.  The U.S. has implemented certain safeguards, said Dr. Bastni.

“For example, when a patient donor-recipient (if) they are not genetically related they should be a spouse. If they are not a spouse or related then we ask, ‘how do you know this person?’ So, if it is from church, we check the address, make sure the addresses fit each other and that they are going to the same church,” he explained. “But if somebody is American and somebody is from Mexico then we get very suspicious so social services is very diligent to make sure these (patients) are somehow emotionally related,” said Dr. Bastni.

“However, when those gangs who want to import and export and do, they do it more in the East Coast where it’s too crowded and shiny hospitals and they bring somebody from Estonia and so it’s my distant cousin and he doesn’t speak English but is White and this patient is also White and they are distantly related and I just want to donate from the goodness of my heart. Or there have been cases from Sudan brought to Boston for African Americans and then again like for $1,000-$3,000 they gave them and then they ship them back to Sudan quick. There are cases like that.”

Dr. Bastni is in favor of regulating organ donations in the U.S. and globally by utilizing some methods the Islamic Republic of Iran has implemented that have greatly reduced cases of illegal organ trafficking.  Some suggestions based on aspects of the “Iran Model” by Dr. Bastni for donors are: lifetime health insurance, a one-year term life insurance of $1,000,000 and a gift of at least $20,000 for cost of travel, lost wages, pain and sacrifice. Policies must be implemented that benefit the donor, recipient and the government, he said.    

“When there is a big need in society and you abandoned it then people are going to do it underground so it’s better to be regulated and then at least make sure everything’s safer,” he said.

But, cases of illegal or unethical practices in the organ trade are not limited to live donors. In Cook County in Illinois several lawsuits have been filed against Biological Resource Center of Illinois and several affiliated companies by families accusing the facilities of mishandling, abuse and desecration of the remains of loved ones whose bodies had been donated for medical research and education.

FBI agents lead arrested suspects from their headquarters as part of a corruption investigation, July 23 , 2009, in Newark, N.J. The mayors of three New Jersey cities, two state legislators and several rabbis were among more than 40 people arrested Thursday in a sweeping corruption investigation that began as a probe into an international money laundering ring that trafficked in goods as diverse as human organs and fake designer handbags. Photo: AP/ Wide World photos
The FBI raided the facility in January 2015 for allegedly selling contaminated bodies for science.  Several families are currently suing the facility.

Attorney Catherine Cardenas of Lucas & Cardenas law offices in Chicago is representing four families in a civil suit. One of her clients became suspicious when the facility decided to issue the death certificate and it listed their loved one as being born in Vatican City.

“She’s like he never left the United States ever and then some allegations came out that heads were being sold to the Vatican or somewhere in Rome and these aren’t my allegations, this is stuff we had heard on the news and then oddly enough when the FBI told them that they had found his body, it was missing a head and an arm,” Atty. Cardenas told The Final Call.

Puzzle pieces started to look different based upon the families coming in and sharing what happened in their cases, she explained. 

“They thought the bodies were going to be used for science. All of my families are people whose family members had died of a certain disease or a certain type of cancer. They were really wanting the scientific community to come up with a solution to these diseases in order to prevent them in the future. And then to find out that the bodies were actually being mishandled, it made them feel all over, grief and shock and horror and ‘hey what were these bodies being used for?’ ” said the attorney.

Many of her clients are questioning if they made the right decision and if they did right by their loved ones.

“A lot them are feeling a lot of guilt thinking I should have never agreed to this,” said Atty. Cardenas. Her office has subpoenaed the FBI for the agency’s documentation of cases the firm is handling on behalf of clients but has received limited information. We can only get what the FBI is willing to give, she continued.

“According to the information we have, we do not know where any of the specific body parts of our clients have gone. All that we know are what body parts were found of the loved ones and what body parts were missing of the loved ones. So, we’ve never been given exact notification.”

All her cases are on hold for now because the insurance company for the research center filed to remove all insurance coverage for any and all actions of the company, she said. They are saying because the company committed illegal acts, they are not covered by insurance. It could be several months before a decision is made on coverage, said Atty. Cardenas. 

—Starla Muhammad