Reviewed by Uma Gonchigar
In “Disrupting Narratives of Gift and Commodity in the Illegal Organ Trade,” Vincent Benlloch condemns organ trade for its devastating effects on the world’s poor. First, Benlloch introduces the fundamental inequity of the global organ market: the Third World providing body parts for the First World. Central to the tragedy of organ trafficking is the fact that organ transplantation is an effective treatment, and often the only treatment, for end-stage organ failure. Moreover, organs from living donors produce significantly longer survival rates than do organs from cadavers. As a result, a global market for buying and selling biological materials has arisen. Critically, demand for transplantation exceeds supply of organs. This scarcity has led to the rise of illegal organ trafficking, with practices like transplant tourism and clandestine donation. To justify both legal and illegal organ trade, the practice is framed in language of human and technological progress that obscures the disquieting actualities.
In the final section, Benlloch draws upon interviews and surveys with organ vendors to show the disturbing reality for the organ market’s suppliers. The vast majority of surveyed donors sold their organs because of poverty or debt. One of many examples, it is heartwrenching to read about a forty-three-year-old Bangladeshi man who did not know what a kidney was when he decided to donate his. Through the the vendors’ stories, Benlloch contradicts the notion that organ sale is a matter of rational individual choice.
Benlloch is astute in noting that illegality is incidental to global organ trafficking. Laws are useless in deterring organ trade. Benlloch is also correct that the language of altruism around organ trade is a farce. Why would the destitute provide charity for the better-off? Further, Benlloch is brave for criticizing neoliberalism’s championing of progress. Medical innovation that entails shattering human rights is neither medicine nor progress.
At times, the essay would benefit from further explanation. For example, it is unclear how commodification of bodily materials causes metaphysical atomization of the human body. Moreover, the paper leaves a crucial question unanswered. If poverty is the driving force behind organ trade, does selling organs help vendors’ economic plight at all? If organ trade did have an actual economic benefit for the poorest in the Third World, then Benlloch’s claim that organ trafficking imprisons vendors in poverty would be unfounded. In that case, Benlloch would have only a moral argument, not a social nor economic one, against organ trade.
Benlloch’s essay shows the troubling reality of the supply side for organ transplantation. At one point, Benlloch makes the incisive point that trading body parts, essential to life, for money is not an equal exchange. Benlloch does not go so far as to call life sacred, but he has compiled persuasive evidence for those who promote the sanctity of life.
Read the whole paper here!