Kidneys for sale? Sherine Hamdy discusses her new book on Egypt’s ethical debate over organ transplantation

How much is a kidney worth? According to Sherine Hamdy, a Brown University anthropologist, the going rate in Egypt circa 2006 was approximately $5000.

It might not sound like much, but in a country where poverty is high, organ traffickers are persuasive and poor preventative care raises demand—the choice is complicated.

Enter Islam into the equation and you’ve got what amounts to a series of puzzles, according to Hamdy.

Sherine Hamdy, Assistant Professor of Anthropoloy, Brown University

Hamdy set about tackling these in her new book, “Our Bodies Belong to God: Bioethics, Islam and Organ Transplants in Egypt.”

More than thirty Northwestern students and faculty trudged through several inches of snow Tuesday evening to hear about Hamdy’s research in a land known for its broiling sunshine, magnificent  pyramids and a growing underground industry—organ transplantation.

Egyptians are ambivalent on the subject of organ transplantation, Hamdy explained.

While Islamic leaders wield substantial influence, Egyptians also rely on their personal experiences to guide their religious conclusions on the subject.

Hamdy illustrated this through the experience of Dr. Kotb, a successful transplant surgeon who later renounced his profession as haraam, or forbidden, by his Islamic beliefs.

She speculated Kobt’s change of heart wasn’t a sudden religious epiphany, but a broadening of Kobt’s perspective.  As a doctor he was compelled to end his patients’ suffering.  Later he started to ask the larger questions.

The answers he found were disturbing.  He saw the sometimes devastating effects of organ transplant on living donors and the potential for exploitation of the poor—factors which likely influenced his views on the subject, Hamdy said.

But many Westerners and upper-class Egyptians continue to fault Islam as the road block to open dialogue on organ transplantation.

“It’s not about a religious constraint to potential benefits of the biotechnology, it’s about whether there actually are benefits to the biotechnology that outweigh the costs,” she said.

The situation worsened in 2006 when the World Health Organization flagged Egypt as having one of the highest rates of organ trafficking in the world, Hamdy said.

This led to a government crackdown on organ transplantations, pushing the practice further underground and stilting conversations of creating a commercial market.

“Talk of regulating the market is so taboo that the dialogue is closed,” Hamdy said.

Although initially uncomfortable with commercializing organ transplantation, Hamdy said she advocates acknowledging the market to make it less hostile.

Hamdy’s words resonated with Northwestern anthropology and global health student Tamon Oshimo, 22.

“She mentioned something that most people agree with, that you can’t have an absolutist stance, but I like that she had a compelling argument for it as well.”

Hamdy was also hopeful.  She turned attention to Mansoura, a devout Muslim city 77 miles north of Cairo, which boasts the most effective kidney center in the nation and completes 80 transplants each year.

“If the medical rates get better, then the market might change,” she said.

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