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UC Berkeley anthropology professor working on organs trafficking

– A University of California, Berkeley, medical anthropologist is helping authorities in Brazil, Israel and South Africa investigate what she calls a shocking new "slave triangle" in which the poor are being taken to distant cities by criminal syndicates and coerced into selling their organs for illegal transplants.

"For the first time in investigations of human trafficking, doctors are being arrested and hospitals cited," said Nancy Scheper-Hughes, director of Organs Watch, a UC Berkeley-based documentation and research project. "These arrests have traffickers very nervous."

 Nancy Scheper-Hughes with organ trafficking victim
Nancy Scheper-Hughes with Alberty Alfonso da Silva in his mud-walled hut in a slum of Recife, Brazil. Alberty was trafficked in August 2003 to Durban, South Africa, where he sold his kidney to an American kidney patient who was flown in from New York City. (Photo by John Maier)

To explore the ring that enticed poor Brazilian men to South Africa to sell kidneys for well-to-do Israeli, European and American transplant recipients, Scheper-Hughes visited the slums of Brazil and the big cities of South Africa and Israel. There she tracked both small- and big-time organs brokers, some of them surgeons, others corrupt businessmen and money launderers. She interviewed donors, brokers and others involved in the syndicate that, she says, proves the poor are becoming body banks for the rich.

Authorities enlisted Scheper-Hughes to start last year to untangle and understand the workings of the ring, familiar with her ethnographic and advocacy study of organs trafficking in 12 countries in the past eight years.

And they commend her assistance.

"Her knowledge of the subject is extremely thorough. Her information will help us a lot as we continue the investigation," said Capt. Louis Helberg of the project investigation team for the white-collar crime branch of the South African Police.

Scheper-Hughes was invited to South Africa by the government to use her connections and knowledge of organs trafficking to help police investigators and the Ministry of Health in the state of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

In Recife, Brazil, Deputy Raimundo Pimentel of the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission said that Scheper-Hughes has provided the investigation there with "a rich and valuable report about (the) world's reality of human organs trafficking and especially the focus on Brazil's situation."

She was asked by a state legislature in Brazil to help Recife investigators and to testify about the organs trade. She will fly to Brasilia soon to testify at a national hearing on the problem.

When Scheper-Hughes and others launched Organs Watch nearly four years ago, illegal transplants were largely considered the stuff of urban legend.

Transplant tourism involving trafficked living organ donors is increasingly common in a world where, she says, cadaver organs are scarce, while desperately poor people are plentiful and "available." Transplant patients can now buy a "fresh" kidney from a stranger if they have enough cash, health insurance and the right connections to organs brokers. They also have to be willing to break the laws against buying and selling human body parts and be willing to travel to distant lands.

Scheper-Hughes said that despite recent high-profile arrests, organ trafficking is a difficult tide to stem.

So, she said, if the world is ready to accept what she terms the growing "commodification of the body," she is campaigning for recognition of the human rights of organ donors, examination of the long-term health risks they face, and institution of regulations such as national and international registries of living donors, mandatory medical follow-ups and reporting of the related health assessments.

With mandatory reporting of the medical conditions of donors and follow-up exams, "we'll be able to solve the question of whether, in fact, organ donation is as risk-free as the transplant community would like us to believe," Scheper-Hughes said.

"If it turns out that the world is moving in the direction of using living people, especially poor ones, to serve the needs of more affluent people, at a minimum that means recognizing the donor as a patient who has certain needs and to whom the medical community has certain responsibilities which have not been articulated yet."

The medical community may be shifting its positions on organs trafficking, Scheper-Hughes said.

On Jan. 23, the World Health Organization (WHO) - which she served in 2003 as an advisor on organ and tissue transplants - officially recognized the "ethical and safety risks" of transplants and the need "to take measures to protect the poorest and vulnerable groups from 'transplant tourism,'" borrowing Scheper-Hughes term. The latter was "a very big step" because WHO previously had considered transplant tourism a deviant, isolated practice that required no response from the medical community at-large, she said.

Alexander Morgan Capron, director of WHO's Department of Ethics, Trade, Human Rights and Health Law, called Scheper-Hughes "a passionate investigator into this phenomenon" and said her advocacy "has done a great deal to publicize this subject."

When she tried to spread word about the problem in Eastern Europe to the Council of Europe about a year ago, Scheper-Hughes was met with laughter, some hisses and even boos from an audience mainly comprised of doctors. But after her presentation, the council did investigate her claims, and a transplant ring operating in Moldova, Turkey and Israel was halted.

Others paying attention to Scheper-Hughes include journalists, who rely on her background knowledge and access to the illicit organs trafficking world. Some reporters repeat her statements on the front pages of their newspapers or broadcast airwaves.

"In a field where urban myth and uncorroborated thirdhand accounts are frequently quoted,

Scheper-Hughes is rigorous in her commitment to quote only provable and demonstrable facts," said Brian Woods, producer of "The Transplant Trade," a documentary in production for the Discovery Channel and Channel 4 in the United Kingdom.

Scheper-Hughes is the author of at least 30 academic articles on organs transplant and trafficking, including one for the journal Lancet. She also co-authored an article on the topic for the New England Journal of Medicine. Her latest book, "The Ends of the Body: The Global Traffic in Organs," is due out in 2005. Her earlier research topics have included mother love and child death in Brazil, schizophrenia among bachelor farmers in Ireland, AIDS and human rights in Cuba, and death squads and the execution of street children in Brazil.