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Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the NJ corruption bust and illegal organ trafficking

One of the most shocking aspects of the sprawling corruption bust that brought down several New Jersey mayors yesterday, was the arrest of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn for attempting to arrange a donation of a kidney for $160,000. Moreover, it was apparently UC Berkeley’s Nancy Scheper-Hughes who, in 2002, first tipped off the FBI to her knowledge of Rosenbaum’s role as the principal US broker in an international kidney trafficking ring. The donors/victims included Moldovan villagers who were apparently promised manual labor jobs in the US and then coerced into “donating” their kidneys to recipients who posed as relatives.

Scheper-Hughes came upon this over the course of a decade-long research project on the illegal organs trade, which is the topic of a forthcoming book entitled A World Cut in Two: Global Justice and the Traffic in Organs. In addition to a handful of academic publications, Scheper-Hughes discussed the project at length during a recent lecture at the New York Academy of Sciences, available for viewing here.

You can listen to an extensive conversation between Scheper-Hughes and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer about the case here:

The story brings up numerous interesting and very troubling issues, particularly the question of how physicians and administrators at some very prestigious East Coast hospitals failed to notice that anything was amiss about the relationships between kidney donors and recipients in these cases. (Interestingly enough, this week’s issue of The New Yorker includes an article by Larissa MacFarquhar about kidney donation, which discusses the debate about legalizing compensation for organ donation).

Additionally, this case very poignantly brings up questions about the ethics of conducting ethnography “undercover” — issues which Scheper-Hughes has addressed in her 2004 article, “Parts unknown: undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking underworld.” As she writes in the abstract:

“This article addresses some of the ethical, ethnographic and political dilemmas of an idiosyncratic multi-sited research project exploring the illegal and covert activities surrounding the traffic in humans and their body parts by outlaw surgeons, kidney hunters and transplant tourists engaged in ‘back-door’ transplants in the global economy. In its odd juxtapositions of ethnography, documentation, surveillance and human rights work, the project blends genres and transgresses longstanding distinctions between anthropology, political journalism, scientific reporting, political engagement, public interest anthropology and human rights work. How does one investigate covert and criminal behavior anthropologically? When, if ever (and on what grounds), is it permissible to conduct research ‘under cover’? When crimes are being committed, to whom does one owe one’s divided loyalties?” (Scheper-Hughes 2004).


2 Responses to Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the NJ corruption bust and illegal organ trafficking

  1. Amazing interview.
    How could hospitals not have known.
    Add, these "donors" came into the country, they came thru "Homeland Security", they had visas, therefore they can be traced.
    Who are they, and who facilitated them coming into the country?

    In less than 48 hours this story has been buried, even tho it is the sort of sensational story which would normally be played and re-played thru the news cycles.

  2. They are trying to wipe out the grey market of buying kidneys here in the Philippines…last week, they caught a Saudi whose Filipina "wife" was going to donate a kidney to him…someone got suspicious when they noticed she spoke no Arabic and he spoke no Tagalog…

    The libertarians who want money to buy kidneys are naive at the depth of evil schemes that would spring up if this was legal…a couple months in Manila could teach them a lot about this.

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