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May 21, 2013

Exposing the black market for human organs

Many who live in poverty in Bangladesh resort to extreme measures in order to survive: selling their organs. In the first in-depth study of its kind, MSU’s Monir Moniruzzaman details his time spent infiltrating the black market for human organs to expose the often horrific experiences of victims and the consequences of organ trafficking.

The organ trade is thriving in Bangladesh, where 78 percent of residents live on less than $2 a day. Moniruzzaman, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, says the average quoted price of a kidney is 100,000 taka, or $1,400 U.S. dollars, but that figure has dropped as organs donated by the poor are in abundant supply. Donors rarely receive the compensation promised, and complications that result from surgeries can lead to chronic pain, depression, social isolation, and inability to work.

The organ trade is driven by money and is made possible by modern technology and medical advances, as many doctors, hospitals, and the government turn a blind eye to these unethical practices. Until governments crack down on brokers, recipients, and doctors involved, Moniruzzaman will continue to shine a light on the exploited who suffer in the shadows.

Researcher profile: Monir Moniruzzaman

Monir Moniruzzaman

Monir Moniruzzaman is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences

It's hard to imagine someone so poor and desperate that he would even consider selling a kidney or part of his liver. It seems barbaric that there are people willing to exploit the impoverished by arranging such illegal transactions. Yet, as MSU anthropologist Monir Moniruzzaman found, it’s happening all too often in his home country of Bangladesh.

“I first read an article that came out when I was a master’s student,” Moniruzzaman says. “I read it and I couldn’t believe that this could happen—that body parts could be for sale. It’s not slavery. It’s not prostitution. It’s a different kind of body exploitation. It was gruesome to me when I heard about it. That really pulled me into that area to explore.”

Moniruzzaman began looking into whether it was happening in Bangladesh and found to his dismay that it was occurring in an underground network. People living in extreme poverty were resorting to selling their organs to wealthy recipients. Twelve years later, the practice has grown as people try to find ways to pay off loans and care for their families.

“The biggest thing in Bangladesh is the poverty,” Moniruzzaman says. “You can see it everywhere you go. You see the inequality between rich and poor. The inequality is massive here, and it is increasing every day.”

In 2012, Moniruzzaman testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Congress.  He was able to brief them on data that was hard to come by.

“It’s difficult to find the data because nobody wants to tell that he sold his organs,” he says. “It’s shameful. It’s humiliating. There is stigma involved, so it’s very difficult to get into that underworld. It’s illegal on top of it. It’s extremely difficult, but I managed to get into that underworld to find the people and get the data.”

For Moniruzzaman, it’s more than just about doing the research and getting the data.

“As researchers we do research and this is good for knowledge production,” he says.  “People can read about what is happening, but we need to go beyond that. We should have some commitment to those people. We interview them and generate that knowledge, but we need to continue reaching out to them and trying to make some changes. It’s not ‘either or,’ but there has to be a fine balance between academics and applied work.”

Many of the sellers are worse off than before. Some were never paid what they were promised. For others, the money they were paid ran out, and they are unable to go back to work because of lingering health issues from their surgeries.

Moniruzzaman says the next phase of his work is creating a system that will allow the sellers a way to survive economically.

“For these people, all they need is work,” Moniruzzaman says. “I’m thinking about how to create a sustainable living where they can work and make $100 a month. If we create such a system, they can work and survive and it can sustain and grow. Hopefully we can do something for them.”

Field note: Helping organ donors find their voices

Sazzadul Bari is a student at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, and research assistant for Monir Moniruzzaman

I am a student at Rajshahi University in the Department of Anthropology. My teacher, Kamal Pasha, was a student of MSU researcher Monir Moniruzzaman. Through a referral from my teacher, Dr. Moniruzzaman appointed me as his research assistant.

As his assistant, I have managed respondents for the project and arranged interviews with people who have been affected by organ trafficking. I helped get information from two kidney sellers in Dhaka and Chittogong. I also helped them during their interviews by supporting and motivating them and by letting them know how important it is to share their stories.

I also arranged interviews with local political representatives and worked as a field coordinator. As part of my work, I will maintain regular communication with respondents and local representatives.

The project represents the real facts about the trade of human body parts. Politics, economics, gender, and class are all part of the story. It is my hope that this project will bring awareness to the problem and ultimately reduce the practice of this crime.

In the future, I would like to make a film about the real stories of the victims I have met through this project. I would like to see a program that creates awareness among third-world countries like Bangladesh. This will require a sustainable program that will support and create employment for victims as they are reintroduced into society.

I will continue to work with this project. I see it as my social responsibility.