The Wired Feb 2011 contains an article entitled “The Red Market”. This is the name that investigative reporter Scott Carney gives to the commercial trade in human organs, tissue, and reproductive capacity. Mr. Carney, who once lived in Chennai, India is also the author of a forthcoming book and  blog of the same name.

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The Red Market. Image from Amazon

I like Mr. Carney’s work, though I disagree with his belief that the organ trade in India is mostly driven by demand from rich American patients and could be curbed by forcing all Americans to donate their organs upon death. (More on that in a future blog post.)

The Red Market article is misleading in two very disturbing ways. Scott Chaney and Wired describe the exploitation of the poor in less developed nations.

“The problem is, demand for replacement flesh grossly outstrips supply. In the US and like-minded countries, it’s illegal to sell body parts–they can be taken only from those who filled out a donor card before they died or who are willing to give up an organ out of sheer benevolence. This means there isn’t enough tissue to go around. So, as with any outlawed or heavily regulated resource, a bustling underground trade has formed.

“Sometimes the market in body parts is exploitative: Desperate people are paid tiny sums for huge donations. Other times it is ghoulish: Pieces are stolen from the recently dead. And every so often, the resource grab is lethal–people are simply killed for their organs. Welcome to the red market.”

The paragraphs above leave the impression that these gruesome activities are commonly practiced in the U.S. They are not. Organ trafficking is outlawed in the U.S. by the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984. No hospital or surgeon in the U.S. would dare violate the law and lose its accreditation or go to jail (despite what you see on TV night-time soap operas). Outside the U.S., transplants that are suspected to exploit the donor are prohibited at any hospital that abides by the Declaration of Istanbul which denounces transplant tourism.

The story is followed by six pages listing the price of various types of transplant surgery in the U.S. Unfortunately, the data is illustrated using price tags. Thus, the reader may assume the price is for the organ only. Further, they may get the impression that there is an active black market for organs in the U.S. There is not.

By mixing practices in India with the U.S. and making it appear that organs are sold in the U.S., this popular magazine may deter rich Americans from donating their organs. This is the exact opposite of what needs to happen for the global organ shortage to be mitigated. Damn you Wired!

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Photo by Christian Weber and illustrations by Istvan Orosz for Wired

What has me really worked up is that this isn’t the first time that Wired has sensationalized the organ shortage by featuring the prices of organs. In April 2007, it published a map showing the black market price of various  organs in several less developed countries. Gore may sell magazines, but it doesn’t help any patients get off the waiting list.

[Update: Added link to the article.]

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