There is an old and familiar urban legend about kidney thieves that prey upon unsuspecting travellers, stealing their bodily organs. The most common version involves a business traveller who goes out for a drink, gets knocked out, and wakes up in a bathtub full of ice with his kidneys missing.
According to Snopes, there have been no documented occurrences of travellers’ kidney being stolen. The roots of this story are probably an incident in 1989 where a Turkish man falsely claimed he had been lured to England with the promise of a job only to find his kidney removed. The story fell apart once it was revealed that he had advertised his kidney for sale, but not before the account had mutated and spread.
So you’ll have to understand that I was shocked, and a bit skeptical, to hear about roughly 600 kidneys stolen from poor people in India for transplant in rich foreigners:
Many of the donors were day laborers… picked up from the streets with the offer of work, driven to a well-equipped private clinic, and duped or forced at gunpoint to undergo surgery… The men said there were no postoperative medical checks and no discussion of money or other compensation.
Four doctors, 5 nurses, 20 paramedics, 3 private hospitals, 10 pathology clinics and 5 diagnostic centers were involved… The officials suspect that several private hospitals in Delhi and its suburbs were quietly complicit in Dr. Kumar’s work and treated patients recovering from kidney transplants.[Link]
Beyond my moral revulsion, I was also a bit confused as to why they were robbing people of body parts when there was already a voluntary (and still illegal) trade in kidneys. Generally speaking, one would prefer to buy rather than steal kidneys because the donors are less likely to go to the cops and because you’re less likely to have your gundas stage a coup and take all your money.
Sure enough, this group both bought and stole kidneys, although we don’t know in what proportion:
… a team of criminals he called kidney scouts usually roamed the labor markets Delhi and cities in Uttar Pradesh, India’s poorest state, searching for potential donors. Some prospects were asked outright if they wanted to sell a kidney and were offered $1,000 to $2,500. A car equipped with testing equipment was often on hand so that potential donors could be checked immediately to see whether their kidneys matched the needs of prospective patients. [Link]
On a moral level, even one kidney being robbed from a victim is too much, but I will confess that part of my mind was trying to understand the … business model of these crooks as well. If it was effective, sadly we’re likely to see more crimes like this in the future.