Across the world, a process, sometimes legal, sometimes illegal, exists at the very boundaries of life and death. The international organ trade is a topic that naturally invites controversy, with no right answers and a seemingly infinite multitude of wrong ones, and each decision made coming at an enormous ethical cost. In some form or another, it exists in practically every country around the world. In First World countries such as Australia and Britain, the trade occurs not for money but instead for purely altruistic reasons, taking place in a sanitary hospital with the consent of the individuals and families involved—although this form of the trade, as it currently operates, fails to satisfy the demand for transplant organs as a necessity of life for many with otherwise terminal medical conditions. However, in some Third World countries, and even those more industrially developed and with higher standards of living, people continue to murder and steal for the organs of others. The trade sees organs being taken from dead people or, on occasion, live people, in order to give another person a greater chance at life. But what exactly is being taken? To assess this question, it is necessary to look at the major organs that are traded on the international black market, and what they are primarily used for.
The body is made up of numerous organs. Many of these organs, such as the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, the liver, the bladder, the skin, the brain, the eyes and the stomach are important parts of the human body that perform vital functions for day-to-day life. As such, the majority of these organs are in massive demand by those whose own, for whatever reason, do not function to the level necessary to sustain life, or by those who are completely missing some of the organs altogether. Corneas, kidneys and livers are the most commonly traded organs (Levigne, V) both legally and illegally, worldwide. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as of July 29, 2011, approximately 9,055 successful organ transplants were completed in the United States (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network 2011) and there are roughly 70,000 kidney transplants given each year (The Human Trafficking Project 2008). These organs vary from kidneys to intestines and are examples of a form of legal organ trading, inasmuch as a donation system can rightly be termed ‘trading’. In Spain, as of 2006, only 3% of kidney transplants were taken from live bodies – often an example of illegal organ trading. The organs that are taken from bodies and transplanted into others vary in shape, size, and function and each have their own different success rates.
Organs are taken in order to fulfill numerous functions within the body. The heart pumps blood, the lungs filter oxygen and the stomach digests food; these are just some examples of the numerous functions that the organs perform in order to keep our bodies alive. When organs are taken out of the body, they are transferred into another human being by means of a transplant operation usually done by a doctor, or in the case of illegal transplants, someone with basic operating knowledge. In the case of kidney transplants, while the donor survives a maximum of only one kidney may be donated (it is possible to donate a fraction of a kidney), otherwise the donor would be in the same difficult situation as the recepient, in having no working kidneys. However, if the donation is collected posthumously, then both kidneys may be transferred into the new body (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network 2011). Transplanted kidneys are generally used to combat diseases such as diabetes, renovascular and other tubular diseases. Other transplants, such as those of the heart (which are amongst the most statistically successful), involve replacing a patient’s heart with that of the donor, or in some cases simply transferring a few aortic valves and muscles (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network 2011). Heart transplants are used to combat cardiovascular, coronary artery and valvular heart diseases. The functions and procedures that any organ must undergo during the transplant procedure are numerous and complex, and must be carried out with the greatest skill and delicacy.
For an organ transplant to be successful, each organ that is taken from a human body, whether the source was alive or deceased, must be treated carefully and transferred professionally. The most commonly traded organs, such as kidneys and hearts, have a much higher success rate of transfer and as such are much more in demand. The organ trade sees many people survive due to the organs that are harvested from others, and as such it is an important part of the world’s medical practice, but only when done legally. Taking organs from dead bodies and from people who have not given their consent, or who were exploited or coerced, is still an ever-present problem in the world and is the source of one of the most wide-spread black market trafficking organizations in history. As the organ transplantation process evolves, more and more organs will be put up for trade and much more elaborate transfers may become possible. However, it is of crucial importance that in the interim, the global community finds a plausible method of controlling the flow of organs, reducing the incidence of illegal or coerced organ removal, and increasing the organ donation rate in all countries with sufficient technology to allow for transplantation.