Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Spare Parts from Parts Unknown

Today, I was walking around Downtown Vancouver where I was stopped by CBC video news crew capturing word-on-the-street opinions on a recent court case in which a man requiring an organ transplant obtained (or attempted to obtain) a donated organ from a foreign country, but was denied permission. I was asked if that should be permitted.

My response was words to the effect of, "If the organ is needed, it shouldn't matter where it comes from, just as long as nothing unethical was done in order to obtain it."

Of course, it's only after I get about half a block away from the camera crew that I remember that foreign organ donation is a bit of a sketchy issue in some impoverished nations where individuals are selling their internal organs for money.

This is where ethics is no longer viewed as black and white. The practice itself is a fairly disturbing one for the medical ethical community, as it reduces human essence to a commodity with a dollar value attached. This gets even more disturbing when people are essentially coerced into donating their organs, sometimes with them disappearing completely, fueling speculation that they took more than just a kidney.

Many of the people who are going through the process are doing it out of desparation, as black market prices for a kidney are reportedly going up to $100,000 USD. Some do it to feed their families, some do it to pay for safe passage out of their countries. While it is clearly unethical to allow a family to starve, subjecting oneself to a medically unnecessary procedure for profit may not be.

Much of this evokes images from Larry Niven's The Jigsaw Man, a sci-fi short which deals with the technology to reduce the human body into parts for donation, a process which lead to the conied term, "organlegging." According to the story, this practice is typically reserved for convicted killers, although through the progression of the story, it gets used for progressively lesser crimes, until a character goes through the process for running a red light.

This may be closer to reality than we realize, as Chinese prisons have been said to be sources of harvest organs. It is widely known that the Chinese prison system executes the some of the most inmates internationally (often sending the bill for the $0.20 bullet to the family of the executed) and their human rights abuses are well known. However, no one will come out and say it.

I still stand by my statement of allowing organ transplants regardless of point of origin...just as long as it was not obtained through unethical means.

Additional links:

Organ Shortage Fuels Illicit Trade in Human Parts: Article from National Geographic
Black market kidney trade sparks ethical debate: Article from CTV.ca

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