Last night, Justified featured that story you've heard a million times before. Someone woke up in a bathtub without his kidneys. In a twist on the idea, he was told he had four hours before the not having of kidneys would kill him, and if he brought $20,000 to a rendezvous, they could put his kidneys back in and he would live a long and happy life. Mayhem ensued. As always, a great episode, but it got me thinking… do organized organ theft operations really exist? Let’s find out.
The case for the existence of an international black market organ trade has become increasingly convincing in recent years. What remain unsubstantiated are the tales of "back room" organ thefts perpetrated in the dark night in secluded alleys and seedy hotel rooms. "There is absolutely no evidence of such activity ever occurring in the U.S. or any other industrialized country," says the United Network for Organ Sharing. "While the tale sounds credible enough to some listeners, it has no basis in the reality of organ transplantation."
In fact, it's all but impossible for such activities to take place outside properly-equipped medical facilities, UNOS argues. The removal, transport, and transplantation of human organs involves procedures so complex and delicate, requiring a sterile setting, minute timing, and the support of so many highly-trained personnel, that they simply could not be accomplished "on the street," as it were.
Here’s the kicker: No victims have ever come forward.
The National Kidney Foundation has repeatedly issued requests for alleged victims of such crimes to come forward and validate their stories. To date, none have.
CBS News reports that "Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, 60, said he had helped secure the organs from people in Israel for U.S.-based customers in exchange for payments of $120,000 or more. His attorneys said Rosenbaum had performed a lifesaving service for desperately ill people who had been languishing on official transplant waiting lists." Strange as it might sound, this is the first ever proven case of organ theft in the United States. And it seems like the organs were stolen willingly.
How do you get away with something like this? Apparently it wasn't that hard, and Rosenbaum only got caught because he spoke about his service to an undercover agent who was investigating money laundering within the Jewish Orthodox community. Transplant hospitals are a very niche business, who provide a single service and provide it well, and if you agree to pay their costs, the hospitals won't ask you much. CBS News again:
"Critics and experts on organ trafficking say many U.S. hospitals do not have vigorous enough procedures for looking into the source of the organs they transplant because such operations are lucrative. U.S. transplant centers are mostly free to write their own rules for screening donors. The questions they ask vary widely. Some hospitals require long waiting periods; others don't."
Mr. Rosenbaum's case seems to be one of organ sale, not organ theft. In China, however, they've cobbled together something much grayer. An organ sale that just might be a theft. Since it's China, we may never know the truth, but we can sure wonder.
In 2006, the BBC reported on a practice being carried out by the Chinese government. The BBC said: "Organs from death row inmates are sold to foreigners who need transplants. One hospital said it could provide a liver at a cost of £50,000 ($94,400), with the chief surgeon confirming an executed prisoner could be the donor.”
The Chinese government has claimed that the prisoners are donating their organs willingly, that they volunteered to donate their organs as a "present to society." However, the death penalty process is much faster in China than elsewhere, and prisoners are not allowed to file appeals as they are in other countries. In fact, China kills people by the boatload. For an American to take note of how many people a country is executing... well it's fucking serious I'll say that. So that was back in 2006. China has developed a reputation for being a go-to spot for kidneys... I wonder how that's changed since then? Would you bet on it getting better or worse?
"A recent report by a major Chinese newspaper told the story of a young man who became the victim of organ theft by his new employer, a medical device company."
A young Chinese man got a job at a medical device company in Nanjing. His new employer asked him to get a physical before starting with the company, and being a good worker bee, he agreed. He became a little concerned when his doctor's visit seemed more in-depth than he was expecting. He was there for so long that he asked for something to drink. They drugged his water. When he woke up, it was clear he was being operated on. His kidney left the room in a metal box.
When he had finally come to, he spoke to his employer about exactly what the fuck just happened. "His boss told him that someone had paid 350,000 yuan (US$54,880) to cover all expenses. The hospital had received 200,000 yuan (US$31,360), his boss had received 110,000 (US$17,248), and just 30,000 (US$4,704) had gone to the donor--himself." He also learned that he wasn't alone. Seven or eight of his coworkers had experienced the same thing. While the employee is unconscious, his family is contacted, and told essentially, "this is happening, get on board, sign some papers, and you'll get some money. It's going to happen either way."
Medical device company employees aren't the only ones getting their shit took. Members of the Falun Gong, long a persecuted group in China, have complained of being the victims of organ theft. Similar stories are found in refugee camps around the world. Bedouin smugglers in North Africa, who act much as "coyotes" here in the states, normally smuggle people into Israel to act as cheap labor. Well, sometimes. Sometimes they'll cut you open if you can't pay all they think you should. Similar stories were told during the wars in Kosovo and the surrounding areas, but evidence was hard to come by.
So... do people steal kidneys? Kind of. Not in a back alley motel bathtub, no. That's bullshit. You need a hospital to steal someone's kidney. Sweet dreams.