Organ trafficking – truth or urban myth?

All over the world, illegal organ trafficking is being reported. Most people have probably heard the urban myths of many out-of-country vacationers who wake up in a bathtub full of ice and their kidneys removed.

Whether any of these morose incidents have ever been confirmed is not clear. What has been confirmed are the incidents in which individuals are being accused of paying for organs that they received from third world countries. China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt, India, and the Philippines have all been identified as countries where there is a trade in living organs.

There are a few theories that can be investigated as to why the practice of medical tourism is suddenly so prevalent. "For recipient hopefuls, it is surely the high demand and the scarcity of available healthy organs," says David E. Taylor, BCCC, pastoral care coordinator, co-chair Bioethics Committee, Texas Health Presbyterian – Wilson N. Jones Medical Center (WNJ), Sherman, TX. "When you couple that with the disposable wealth of so many in the United States, we have the perfect conditions to produce a thriving black market."

Medical tourism easily can be blamed on high demand of organs, lack of availability of those organs, as well as affluence of society, according to Emmit Essin, MD, chairman of medical staff credentials committee, physician advisor for case management department, co-chair of the Bioethics Committee, Texas Health Presbyterian – Wilson N. Jones Medical Center (WNJ), Sherman.

Besides obviously being illegal, there are other major negatives and ethical issues that arise when it comes to organ trafficking. "Immediately I would think of several areas of exploitation of the donors who too often are the very poorest of their societies," says Taylor. "The average price paid for a kidney is about $1,030, of which the market price is $100K and up."

Essin adds that one of the biggest concerns is the danger of inadequate contrast of match.

According to Taylor, ethics committees have the responsibility of educating the physicians and staff concerning the practice of organ trafficking. Ethics committees also have a responsibility to "be a touchstone to maintain high ethical standards in the matter of illegal donor practices," says Taylor.

Under 1984 federal law, it is illegal for anyone to knowingly buy or sell organs for transplant. The Organ Donation and Recovery Improvement Act was signed by former President George W. Bush. It states that while it is illegal to sell or pay for organs, the act authorizes the federal government to reimburse living donors for expenses and to offer project grants aimed at increasing donations and improving organ preservation and compatibility.

This issue came before the ethics committee in 2009 at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, when it was discovered that Levy Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, NY, was found guilty of trafficking human organs, after a sting by an undercover FBI agent. Currently in the news is an American diplomat that is investigating whether Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci,was involved in trafficking organs from murdered Serb prisoners. In a Council of Europe report, a Swiss member of the European Parliament alleged that the Kosovo Liberation Army ran detention camps where civilian prisoners were killed and their organs sold on the black market.

WNJ Medical Center participates in organ transplantation with Southwest Transplant Alliance of Dallas. "Their standards of identification of eligible donors and our policies in determining 'brain death' and more recently 'DCD' [donation after cardiac death] would well identify any illegal activity," says Taylor.


For more information contact:

  • Emmit Essin, MD, Chairman of Medical Staff Credentials Committee, Physician Advisor for Case Management Department, Co-Chair Bioethics Committee, Texas Health Presbyterian – Wilson N. Jones Medical Center, Sherman, TX. E-mail in care of
  • David E. Taylor, BCCC, Pastoral Care Coordinator, Co-Chair Bioethics Committee, Texas Health Presbyterian – Wilson N. Jones Medical Center. E-mail: