Blood, bones, organs, bodies: Scott Carney discusses “The Red Market”

This woman never received the money she was promised after her kidney was removed; she will have to make do with the much smaller down payment.

Award-winning journalist Scott Carney spoke at the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies last night about his new book The Red Market: On The Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers.

Sitting at the head of a long conference table and surrounded by a double layer of empty chairs (a third row was packed into the back of the small room), Carney somehow managed to look rough-and-tumble, despite his blue shirt and nice tie.

“The bathtub is a myth,” he joked to the event’s stagers, referring to the stereotypical waking-up-in-Tijuana nightmare.  “Besides, they’ll just take one kidney – they won’t kill you,” he added.

His listeners laughed, fiddling with a video camera and adding more chairs.

Soon those chairs would be packed with over 50 listeners, come to hear the investigative journalist talk about his six-year journey toward writing this book.

It was a journey that began ingloriously – as a broke graduate student volunteering his body for erectile dysfunction drug tests.  Since then, after discovering an interest in health policy and what he has coined “the red market,” things have gotten better.

A contributor to such publications as Wired, Foreign Policy and Discover, Carney won the 2010 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for “Meet the Parents,” a Mother Jones piece that tracked an illegally adopted child from his original home in India to a new family in the American Midwest, where he’d been living for over ten years.

The book, his first, aims to target human rights issues in the murky context of what has become an economical issue: body parts.

In a nutshell, people want them.

“At the moment, the body cannot be replicated,” Carney said, explaining that this puts a premium on the body parts of others.

“Flesh always moves up the social hierarchy,” he added.  Thus, no American is likely to give a kidney to a poor, rural inhabitant of India; no Guatamalan family is going to adopt a British child.  This fact lends his bathtub joke a stark reality: university students are exceptionally unlikely to ever be victims of this brutal trade.

Starting with a reading from his book and an introduction to the changing medical world, Carney then moved on to discuss the many crimes the subtitle of his book suggests.  Grave robbers, kidney scammers, bone traders, blood farmers – all made an appearance.

Of the list, it is hard to say what was most disturbing.  Perhaps it was the story about the woman who received a down payment for her kidney, but not the larger sum promised upon its removal.  Or maybe the plight of the man who’d been locked in a shed for three years, kept minimally conscious, his blood extracted at regular intervals.

Rather than offering a critique of the current system, which he said was pointless, Carney aims to get others to question how the system works.

The Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights co-sponsored the event, and topics like these are exactly what they like to see, said Chelsea Glenn, conference co-director.

“We really like this sort of event because it opens up a forum for discussions about topics that are currently in the dark,” she said.

Krzysztof Kozubski, administrator at the Buffett Center, agreed.  “This is a chance for the community on campus to come together to look at an issue,” he said.  He also said he was impressed that Carney presented the issue as one of inequality.

“It is interesting that after discussing the really seedy sides of this ‘business,’ he still think it’s a system worth saving,” Kozubski added.

Perhaps even more than believing the system is worth saving, Carney said, he believes that it isn’t possible to dismantle.  Either way, there are ways to make it better than it is.

“We need to change the convention of looking at organs as widgets and start looking at them as people,” he said after the event.  “This is definitely an ideological shift, but it’s not a hard one.”

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