“The Red Market” had its magazine debut this month in Wired as an eight page info-graphic that divides the human body price. The model they used is a very hairy man who sort of gives me the heebie-jeebies to look at. But I guess that is appropriate since the topic itself can get a bit creepy. Think of this as a preview of what the book will be like with a few major differences. Reducing the book to a chart creates a few limitations that fuels my love/hate relationship with the format. On one hand, it’s an easy way for reader to digest an incredibly difficult and nuanced topic. Most people only know about illegal markets for human bodies through urban legends and movies like “Dirty Pretty Things”. Even fewer have given thought to markets for tissue outside of kidney transplants. The simplicity of price tags come at a cost. Since these are mostly illegal markets prices vary much more widely that I was able to illustrate. Just about every transaction on a red market is an individual negotiation that far more resembles the haggling process over a used car than it does a regular purchase in a grocery store. As one reader pointed out in a post named “Damn You Wired!” putting price tags on organs makes the market look very regular and stable–and much to the author’s chagrin–that the US market for illegal organs is booming internally.
The truth, of course, is that there is a large market for transplant organs in the United States but most of the operations are done abroad. Americans fly all over the world for kidney transplants, egg donations, surrogacy, adoptions and questionably legal surgeries. Hospitals in America generally do not preform the operations themselves; instead it’s usually American brokers who connect patients with foreign surgeons and hospitals. Either way it’s still huge business. And once the article came out I immediately started getting e-mails from US patients on the kidney transplant lists asking me to put them in touch with hospitals and brokers who could arrange transplants for them on the cheap. (note to would be transplant patients: please don’t contact me for an organ hookup. I’m a journalist, not an organ broker.)
The infographic form is also not really able to convey why these markets exist in the first place. Red Markets are not simply a fact of life in the world, or a simple expression of supply and demand. Rather they exist because of lack of transparency in the legal supply chains for human tissue. There are very few cases where anyone will ever know who donated blood that saved their life in surgery, or what specific person gave up a kidney after their car accident. The identities of donors are screened behind a wall of patient confidentiality. While there are legitimate reasons to keep these things anonymous,that very lack of transparency provides great cover for an organ criminal to ply their trade. This is something that I go into much more detail in in my book–particularly the way that the crooked history of the blood business has shaped all modern red markets.
In the meanwhile, click on the pictures above to see the article online. Or even better, buy Wired’s underworld issue in print. It’s on newsstands for a few more days.