Black-market lottery: organ donation and the international transplant trade

02 May 2015

Estimates suggest more than two million people worldwide would benefit from an organ transplant. While the donation rates vary greatly between countries, the contrast between the increasing numbers of people in need and the inadequate numbers of organs being donated mean many will die while they wait. Last night, ABC’s Four Corners screened Tales from the Organ Trade, an HBO documentary that highlights the desperation that links the world’s poor, who sell their organs, together with first-world recipients who buy them on the black market. While accurate statistics are difficult to find, some suggest that up to 15% of the world’s transplants are performed using illegally obtained organs via an international black market web of organ brokers. The brokers bring recipients and donors together with transplant surgeons working out of fly-by-night medical clinics. The process is unregulated, illegal and the risks to both donor and recipient are high. The documentary raises challenging questions about this illegal trade in organs that sometimes benefits both the donor and recipient and other times imperils the well-being of both. There are, no doubt, many more untold horror stories. While some experts argue the sale of organs should be regulated and legalised, most medical professionals strongly discourage their patients from travelling overseas to undergo organ transplants because they have significantly poorer outcomes than those who receive transplants here. So, with Australia widely regarded as a world leader in transplantation outcomes, what would compel anyone to consider such a risky proposition? And why would anyone participate in exploitation like this?