With its 2022 release, the satirical horror movie “Fresh” follows a young woman, Noa, through her newfound relationship with a supposed plastic surgeon, Steve. The relationship turns into a nightmare when Steve takes Noa to a remote house he owns, drugs her and locks her in a cell with other women who have fallen victim to Steve’s alluring nature. He proceeds to surgically remove her body parts piece by piece in order to keep the meat fresh, and subsequently sells them on the black market for purposes including anything from medical use to cannibalism. This practice has become commonly referred to as organ trafficking or the red market, where human body parts including organs, blood, bones, eggs and more are traded.
As I watched this movie, I found myself shocked and horrified to learn about this. Because the human organ market is an underground market, it is difficult to make any definitive estimates of its value. Journalist Scott Carney supposes it could be worth billions of dollars. There are estimates that 10% of all organ transplants are performed using trafficked organs.
Similar to the events in “Fresh,” selling body parts as a commodity is often involuntary and typically preys on society’s most vulnerable populations. In 2008, for instance, 17 people were freed from India’s “blood farm.” The scheme began with the luring of poor migrants to a house with the promise of employment, but the promised job turned out to be $7 per unit of blood they gave. The victims initially participated willingly, but when they wanted to leave they were so weakened by the blood loss they could not. The migrants were then beaten and kept in cages in the house for two and half years, being forced to give blood multiple times a week with no benefit or payment. The Red Cross recommends waiting at least 8 weeks between blood donations, which further proves how exploitative this behavior was.
While many transactions on the red market are involuntary, there are times when people voluntarily sell their body parts. However, this is often because they are in situations of great financial pressure. Carney describes these markets as taking health and resources away from the poor and funneling them upwards through social classes. For example, after a 2004 tsunami in India, an emerging Indian refugee camp quickly gained the nickname of Kidneyville because of the high proportion of desperate refugees who sold their kidneys. Despite often being aware they were being scammed, the refugees proceeded with the surgeries because it was their only option. I am left to wonder, are voluntary organ sales truly voluntary if the seller is in a situation of desperation?
In light of these involuntary and voluntary organ sales, the similarities between organ trafficking and human trafficking are not absent. In fact, most countries include organ trafficking in their definition of human trafficking. The United States and Canada, however, do not.
In both forms of trafficking, the perpetrators prey on society’s most helpless members. For either form of trafficking, participation is typically involuntary. Additionally, the perpetrators are the benefactors in human and organ trafficking, not the victims. These markets flourish because the economics of organ donation support such activities, as there is a low supply of organs and high demand for the much-needed commodity.
The ability to stop organ trafficking is difficult — if not impossible — because there is not a substantial amount of evidence to work with regarding the topic. As a result, the problem of organ trafficking does not get the attention that human trafficking does.
The information that does exist rarely reaches the hands of those able to act, such as judicial authorities and law enforcement authorities. Many times these crimes are not even reported or known to have occurred. There is a great web of criminal networks, collusion within hospitals and manipulation of medical insurers that must be further investigated before any productive action can be taken.
In order to end these crimes against humanity, society must develop a better system for monitoring and tracking organ donations. This could take the form of following the money path, implementing more severe punishments for these crimes and increasing the amount of funds spent on research and prevention. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime asserts the need for a strengthened response, which would include increased evidence-based knowledge, raised awareness amongst target groups and improved legislative and non-legislative measures.
For me, it took watching the horrors of organ trafficking in action through the movie “Fresh” to realize how very real the problem is. This only goes to show how simple it is to increase awareness, whether that is through a movie or even the words you are reading right now. Whatever way you choose to gain insight, remember it is never too late for change and action.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.