Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

Organ trafficking, the global economy and militant anthropology

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Shocking revelations emerged yesterday from an interview with the head of the Israeli forensic institute. In the interview, he admits systematic organ harvest by Israel from dead palestinian bodies (more information here).

The statements were made during an interview with Nancy Sheper-Hughes – a fantastic anthropologist whose work has inspired many (me included) for the field and the ethics of anthropology. She deserves a mention in this debate for her investigations in the global network of organ trafficking.

In years of research, Sheper-Hughes shed light on the global relations of organ donors, smugglers, doctors and recipients. A focus of her work is on global power relations that enable this illegal industry. She writes about the marginalized in the global economy from places like South Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe, who are willing to sell parts of their body to support their families or simply to be able to afford status symbols and satisfy consumption needs. Many others have their organs removed without consent – the revelations about organ theft in Palestine is a remarkable case there. Sheper-Hughes says:

“I was confused, because there were so many forms of real violence; […] but what they [people in the community in Brazil] wanted to talk about was their incredible fear that their bodies were at risk, or those of their children, of being kidnapped by an organ mafia.”

Sheper-Hughes traced the path of trafficked organs through places like India, China, South Africa or – prominently – Israel:

“I found out from the transplant surgeons that these weren’t just allegations but that they were true, and that organ trafficking amongst living people was spreading. […] I began by following the rumours, before I started following the bodies. My primary aim is to disabuse the world of the notion that this is just a rumour.”

At the end of the global “supply chain” or organs are mostly recipients from industrialized parts of the world, usually Europe or the US.

“I worry about the politics, the bio-politics in a global sense, of the people who are resisting the getting of an organ through a waiting list or through friends or family, and would rather get a poor and anonymous person. It’s easier. You don’t have to deal with them after the fact.”

Sheper-Hughes calls her method ‘militant anthropology’, which means that it is prepared to take on a political or moral engagement with its subjects rather than merely engage in academic analysis. In the course of her work, she founded a small NGO called Organs Watch who acts as a pressure group to spread the word, build alliances, and push for legislate response to the injustice.

“Much as I feel for the recipients, for their pain and their suffering, they are represented and visible. They have surplus empathy, they’re in the newspapers and everybody’s heart goes out to them. Nobody’s heart goes out to the sellers, because they’re the riff-raff of society, and not people you naturally want to embrace, but they’re human beings – they need to be represented. Their body is precious to them. We talk about the gift of life. I talk about the gift of the body – instead of ‘I think therefore I am’, you can say ‘I’m embodied therefore I am’. To have to plunge in to yourself and sell that through which you have a personhood, and to think of your only resource as being your organs is so tragic.”

Quotations taken from an interview with Three Monkeys Online.

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