Feature

Book of the week: The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers by Scott Carney

In his “lucid and alarming” new book, Carney examines the various ways that the human body and its components are turned into commodities.

(HarperCollins, $26)

Virtually every part of you is worth something on what Scott Carney calls the “red market,” said Carl Elliott in The Wall Street Journal. In his “lucid and alarming” new book, the veteran health reporter examines the various ways—from organ selling to blood farming to egg donorship—that the human body and its components are turned into commodities. His examples range from the benign—the $900 million global market in human hair—to the shocking: At one point, he visits a camp in India for tsunami refugees that’s dubbed “Kidneyville” because most of its inhabitants bear the scars of illegal surgeries. What worries the author most is that the buyers of human material are mostly rich Westerners, while the sellers are almost exclusively impoverished residents of the developing world.

“Freakish” as some of Carney’s stories can be, “they are the secret face of the age of modern medical miracles,” said Laura Miller in Salon.com. True, recent advances in care don’t explain every alarming discovery the author makes, such as the bone farms in India where skeletons from looted graves are bleached in the sun for the benefit of Western medical students. Nor did 21st-century breakthroughs create the Indian dairy farmer who kept several men chained up for years so that he could drain their blood to sell to hospitals. But Carney makes a strong case that the black market for human organs has been greatly expanded both by surgeons’ growing skill sets and by misguided public policy. America’s ban on the sale of human organs may have been enacted with the best of intentions, for instance, but a shortage of purely altruistic donations creates a demand that’s filled by unscrupulous go-betweens.

Carney can “come across as nearly churlish” when he criticizes Westerners for helping to create these markets, said Kate Tuttle in The Boston Globe. Is it fair to berate a dying patient who travels abroad out of desperation to obtain a kidney? Nonetheless, Carney’s exploration of the moral inequities of the “red market’’ is both “convincing and disturbing.” He argues that there’s just one solution: Every hospital performing transplants should be required to identify the source of the organ by name and country. The loss of anonymity might reduce organ donations, he concedes, but it’s still better than a system in which the poor are chopped up and sold like car parts, so that wealthier people may live.

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