Kidney Theft: Urban Legend No More


It's an urban legend no more. The Washington Post reports that a stolen kidney-for-transplant racket was been broken up in India. To wit:

Three weeks ago, Mohammad Saleem, 33, agreed to work at a construction site in this bustling city near New Delhi. A house painter with an extended family of eight, he was drawn here by the promise of an extra dollar in his daily wage. After a few days of waiting in a blue-and-white bungalow for work to begin, Saleem said, he was forcibly anesthetized by two masked men.

"When I woke up after several hours, I felt a pain in my right side," Saleem recalled, sitting on a metal cot in a city hospital ward. "The men said, 'We have removed your kidney, and you better not breathe a word about it.' My life broke into pieces when I heard that."

I told you so. If legal organ markets with enforceable contracts are not permitted then organ bootlegging is inevitable. To wit:

Until medical science comes up with new ways to ease the growing shortage of transplantable organs, making the current voluntary black market into a white market with legally enforceable contracts could well forestall the development of an involuntary black market in organs. That would be win/win for us all.

reason has long been in favor of transplant organ markets. Why? Among other reasons, because few of us are as generous as former reason editor Virginia Postrel who donated a kidney in 2006.

Whole Post article here.

Addendum: For a nice take on how organ bootlegging might work, check out the superb 2002 movie "Dirty Pretty Things."

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  1. Damn organleggers! Where’s Gil “The ARM”?

  2. Something about this story rings false. If a criminal is cold-hearted enough to forcibly remove one kidney for profit, why not take both kidneys, double your profits, and leave no witnesses?

  3. I, for one can’t wait until I can vat-grow a new non-rejectable kidney from my own cloned cells. 20 years tops.

  4. Something about this story rings false. If a criminal is cold-hearted enough to forcibly remove one kidney for profit, why not take both kidneys, double your profits, and leave no witnesses?

    The potential to hang for it, perhaps?

  5. Although this shouldn’t be too surprising, after all those urban legends I have to wonder if the story is false. Like Abdul said, why wouldn’t th thieves take both kidneys and quietly dispose of the body? Seems like hiding the corpse of a poor guy away from his family would be easier than keeping a live victim quiet.

    FWIW, in the 1990’s I remember reading an LA Times printing a story of a scuba diver found in a forest fire….

    On the topic of organ markets, I seem to recall that Iran allows kidney sales. Which just guarantees that America will never allow it.

  6. LOL Highway, I thought for sure I would get the first organlegger joke.

  7. FWIW, in the 1990’s I remember reading an LA Times printing a story of a scuba diver found in a forest fire….

    There’s a show called Urban Legends on (I think) the Biography network. They show three in each episode and you’re supposed to figure out which one is true. The one you mention was false, IIRC.

  8. When I was a staff writer for Forbes way back in 1990, I wrote an article–“Should I be allowed to buy your kidney?”–that looked at the international market in transplant organs. Here’s one situation I found in India:

    In the world’s poorer countries, hospitals rarely have the equipment or trained staff to save organs for transplant. Nor can most of these countries afford hemodialysis facilities, thus, in effect, sentencing patients with kidney failure to certain death. In the case of kidney failure, the only real solution in many poor countries is to buy a kidney from a living donor, in a straightforward commercial transaction.

    Consider the case of A. S. Reddy, a 45-year-old corporate secretary at the publishing house Orient-Longman in Hyderabad, India. His kidneys failed three years ago. None of his siblings was an appropriate donor. Reddy was fortunate to be able to afford private renal dialysis while his doctor, K. C. Reddy (no relation), looked for an appropriate donor. After just three months on dialysis, Reddy was successfully implanted with a kidney from Mrs. Velangani Vitalravi, a 25-year-old garment factory worker and mother of two.

    “I had no choice but to pay for a kidney,” the recipient says. Surgeon K. C. Reddy phrases his ethical response in this way: “Either I buy, or they die.”

    What about the lady who parted with one of her two kidneys? Mrs. Vitalravi used her money to buy a piece of land in her home town of Ambattur, just outside Madras, where she plans to build a house one day. Her husband also sold one of his kidneys and used the money to pay off debts and cover his sister’s dowry and wedding costs.

    Dr. Reddy, who did the operation, was trained in Madras, spent a year at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, worked for five years in hospitals in England and ultimately returned to India in the early 1980s. His transplant team has performed more than 600 transplants to date — all of which involved kidneys obtained from living donors, 450 of whom were unrelated. Reddy’s clinic also handles the financial arrangements, in order to exclude middlemen who might coerce or blackmail donors to sell a kidney.

    A complete operation in Dr. Reddy’s clinic, including hospital costs, testing and donated organ, costs $ 5,000 for an Indian recipient, or $ 8,000 for a foreigner. (In the U.S. a kidney transplant operation typically costs $ 51,000 and is covered by Medicare.) Reddy pays kidney donors $ 1,800 — about six times the average annual wage in India.

    Thus are organs literally human capital. According to Reddy, one kidney donor bought a small farm, another set up shop as a shoemaker, a third set up a poultry business. Will Americans seek kidney transplants in India and other places where the organs are available if the supply bottleneck gets much worse?

    “I have no doubt that it will occur,” says Dallas nephrologist Alan Hull. “As the waiting list grows, I have to say to patients, ‘Look, you have a rare blood type and you’re a high reactor. The waiting time for you will be five to ten years, which is longer than your life expectancy, so while I’d love to give you a transplant, I don’t think I can offer it to you.’ If that person has money and there’s a kidney in Bombay — let’s say — you know what will happen. They’re going to buy one.”

  9. The potential to hang for it, perhaps?

    What’s the sentence for just taking one kidney in India? A 100 rupee fine and community service?

  10. If they allow legal selling of organs, then they’ll have to allow the sale of cunt.

  11. Organ bootlegging? As Highway notes above, the term is organlegging. I guess cosmolibertarians aren’t science fiction geeks, either. Egad.

  12. Good movie.
    Not, however, “a nice take on how organ bootlegging might work”

    Only slightly more realistic than The Island

    Of course, some people think of Terminator as a nice take on how robots might take over the world.

    I remain skeptical.

  13. Neu Mejican,

    Not I. Our robot overlords will enslave and/or exterminate us in a much more subtle way. A third alternative is that they will surpass us so far as to ignore our existence completely.

  14. Our robot overlords will enslave and/or exterminate us in a much more subtle way.

    Sure, but the problem is we’ll need those robots to protect us from the coming zombie apocalypse.

  15. How’s that song go…

    Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.
    Eyes and ears and mouth and nose…

    A nice jingle for the emerging market.

  16. The potential to hang for it, perhaps?

    Given the chances that the implantee is gonna die anyway, I don’t think these guys are squeamish about killing people off for profit.

    Who buys a complicated, potentially deadly medical procedure from some guy on the street posing as a doctor?

  17. Gives a whole nuther connotation to opening a body shop…

  18. I would totally buy an Indian kidney before an American one. It’s like selling microloans. You can really help people and yourself. And, that feels good.

  19. I guess the kidneynappers didn’t care what type Saleem had, there were probably several doctors and patients waiting. Makes you wonder how many kidneys were taken that day.

  20. The anecdote in the initial post takes place in India, right? Then at 10:41 Ron posts quotes from a story he did about several incidents of kidney sales in India, with no mention of their illegality. The two stories, taken together seem to conflict with the assertion: If legal organ markets with enforceable contracts are not permitted then organ bootlegging is inevitable.

    I must be missing something, or Bailey is. Pls. explain.

  21. I liked Dirty Pretty Things a lot. Too bad Ms. Tatou is quitting film; she does those angry roles quite well and should do more of them.

  22. I don’t get this. I thought one of the reasons you’d never really see organ stealing operations is that the donor has to be so carefully screened.

    Here’s a kidney

    Where’d it come from?


    Blood type?


  23. Vulgar, but Al S. wins the thread.

  24. One problem with organlegging is that an organ has to be both (a) prematched to the recipient, and (b) fresh.

    Matching donors to recipients requires a fair amount of medical information and analysis. I’m not sure how organleggers do that.

    The organ also has to be taken immediately to the recipient, which means the transplant team needs to be in on it as well. Not impossible, but tough. Very tough.

  25. @ Paul

    Where’d it come from?


    Abby who?

    Abby Normal.

  26. Dammit, I did my dissertation on biological property rights. Now I have to amend the damn thing. I’ll assume Mr. Bailey posted this because he was envious of Ms. Howley getting more footnotes.

  27. I’m a skeptic. My B/S detector remained silent after reading the article. I noted that names, dates and numbers are provided in the article. I hope they nail the evil bastard(s). A legal organ market would hve prevented this, but somehow I doubt that response will be chosen.

  28. innominate: The kidney sales I described in India in 1990 were not illegal–they were contractually agreed to. Sometime after that, the Indian government made the commercial sale of transplant organs illegal. One result, as we see, is a black market.

  29. I can’t tell what the truth is here. I woke up in a strange bathtub one morning to find that my B/S detector had been surgically removed.

  30. One result, as we see, is a black market.

    With the associated violence. Who could have forseen that?

  31. No one’s answered my question.

    Three weeks ago, Mohammad Saleem, 33, agreed to work at a construction site in this bustling city near New Delhi

    So I assume that Mr. Saleem had to go through a serious and rigorous medical screening to get this job?

  32. Hmmm… the story raises a lot more questions than it answers. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is The Washington Post which I’m sure must have fact checked a story like this to death, I’d have to call BS.

    Anyway, even if it somehow did turn out to be a hoax, the picture of Audrey makes it all worth it. 🙂

  33. hmm… Surprised that no one (Warty?) has yet posted a link to these guys.

  34. Now I’m really confused. The blogpost, titled “Urban Legend No More” suggests that we finally have a documented case. According to the Post article, this has been going on for “more than a decade”.

    Saleem was the latest in a long list of poor laborers who had come to Gurgaon to work and lost their kidneys as a result. Police say they were victims of a major organ-trafficking racket based in this city for nearly a decade.

    According to Snopes:

    Still, news accounts from India occasionally surface reporting claims that doctors have been arrested for stealing kidneys (either through trickery or force) from unsuspecting citizens. Such claims are difficult to evaluate given the typical lack of any follow-ups in the Western press, but other sources suggest the usual result is that charges are dropped or reduced when investigations determine that the claimants entered into voluntary agreements to sell their kidneys (and later leveled criminal accusations because they regretted their decisions or were disgruntled with the size of the payments they had received).

    I’m inclined to believe the WaPo based on reputation alone, but this story, as some have noted, raises more questions than it answers. I’d severely nick the Post on not answering the fundamental questions: How were these dupes pre-screened for “donation?”

  35. Correction, I meant to write “nearly a decade” in the post above.

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