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Does Organ Harvesting Really Exist?

The story goes like this:

The victim is drugged - perhaps something slipped in to their drink or food - and they pass out. In some secret back room or in the middle of the woods, one or more of their organs are surgically removed from their bodies, to be sold on the black market.

Meanwhile, the victim wakes up groggy and with no knowledge of what has happened ... perhaps until they feel some intense pain where their missing organ once was, or until someone else tells them their organ is missing.

It's the stuff Hollywood movies are made of - the hero goes in search of his kidney across the globe and never finds it, but instead finds true love. Or something like that.

But should you personally worry about it (your organs getting stolen, not the true love part)?

Truth is there is no proof it has ever happened to anyone in the U.S. or anywhere in the Western world.

Not a single hospital or victim has ever come forward proving such tragedy has ever existed.

The demand for organ donations is far greater then the supply. As of April 3, 2003 there were 80,942 candidates listed on the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) waiting list.

Where It Began

Like many urban legends ignited by unreasonable fear and ignorance, the organ theft mystery continues to spread, changing and altering in details over time.

The rumor originated when folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand made mention in The Baby Train that he had heard of this disturbing crime back in 1991.

Soon after the publication, many people contacted Mr. Brunvand telling him of similar stories that they had experienced. Although the stories varied slightly in details, they all revolved around victims waking up to be told they were missing an internal organ.

The Ongoing Variations to the Tale

By 1995-96 the "businessman 911 version" was made known. The victim of the "organ stealing" crime was instructed to "call 911 if you want to live." Weary business travelers were said to be the main target of this crime but with this new variation of the tale victims were now generously given the chance to live with the 911 advice.

By May of 1996 the "college student version" started to run rapid through the University of Texas campus. Now the innocent college student was the target of such a dubious crime.

Next travelers saw the "Las Vegas version" start to unfold where an unsuspecting male tourist was drugged in his hotel room by a prostitute and woke up the next morning, minus a kidney.

In January 1997 the "New Orleans version" began spreading via word-of-mouth, fax, and email stating that a highly organized crime ring in New Orleans was carrying out plans to drug visitors during Mardi Gras, surgically remove organs from their bodies, and sell the organs on the black market.

Whatever rendition of the tale is heard, it is always based on third, fourth, or fifth hand information, never based on someone directly related to the person telling the myth.

Is it Possible?

"There is absolutely no evidence of such activity ever occurring in the U.S. or any other industrialized country," says the United Network for Organ Sharing. "While the tale sounds credible enough to some listeners, it has no basis in the reality of organ transplantation."

The United Network for Organ Sharing also states that it is impossible for such an activity like organ harvesting to occur outside properly equipped medical facilities.

"The removal, transport, and transplantation of human organs involves procedures so complex and delicate, requiring a sterile setting, minute timing, and the support of so many highly-trained personnel, that they simply could not be accomplished 'on the street,' as it were."

Organ Watch, a non-profit organization, has reported cases where families of brain-dead patients have been offered a million dollars to donate their relatives' kidneys.

Around the World

While you need not worry about being drugged and finding yourself in the hospital with one less organ anytime soon, it is not to say that human organs may not be traded illicitly in certain parts of the world.

Organ Watch, a non-government/non-profit organization, based in the University of California, Berkeley, records "the global traffic in human organs" and documents the practices of organ harvesting in many parts of the world.

The most commonly reported abuses are the removal of organs from executed prisoners in China and the removal of organs from dead bodies in Argentina and South Africa without the permission and knowledge of the families.

In addition there are instances where organs are removed in exchange for compensation or forced gifting between employers, employees, neighbors, and distant kin. In fact, body parts are sometimes exchanged for emotional and/or material support such as work or benefits, and prisoners have also offered kidneys in exchange for reduced sentences or to lighten their social condition.

Bottom Line

Like many urban legends, this one is based on fear. When fear is involved many tend to follow the warnings and caution themselves as they travel or go out at night. But always remember, next time you hear that "Suzy's mother heard it from Mark's friend who heard it from Kim's grandmother that Jake's small intestine was stolen from him" be cautioned that you might be inhaling the lies of an old wives' tale.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes, (2001) The Global Traffic In Human Organs

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