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September 1st, 2009
08:01 PM ET

Cold realities of the illegal kidney market

Drew Griffin
CNN Special Investigations Unit

According to the World Health Organization, one out of every 10 kidney transplants in the world is done illegally.

Most of the time, that means a living person has been paid to donate a kidney.

Figures are often hard to grasp, but consider this: if the WHO is correct, that means today, in the United States, four people are receiving brand new kidneys that have been purchased from a living donor.

In researching this story, I have found that the buying and selling of kidneys is rampant. And although this may sound extremely cold, it’s so rampant, in fact, that anyone in need of a kidney, on dialysis, or awaiting a crash victim to die so he or she can live, is simply wasting time.

It is illegal to purchase a kidney in the United States, but if estimates are anywhere near accurate, four people today will do just that - navigating the intricacies of fooling a hospital and a surgeon into allowing the surgery to take place.

In the first of our reports tonight you will see the extent of the problem, the ease with which patients and donors can deceive medical authorities and the cold reality that the illegal kidney market is so extensive it may be impossible to stop.

And you may come to find yourself facing the same dilemma as many others: should it be stopped at all? Or should those willing to sell a kidney be allowed to test the market, profit from their own healthy bodies and aid those who are dying to buy?


Filed under: Drew Griffin • Organ Transplant
soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Robbie Robfogel

    I received a life saving, last minute liver transplant on April 23rd, 2005. I see a LOT of people who wait and wait to find an organ and many die. To think that there are people out there trying to sell the gift of life, is one of the sickest things I have ever heard!

    Robbie Robfogel
    Liver Transplant Recipient 2005
    UCLA Medical Center

    September 1, 2009 at 9:03 pm |
  2. Bob Purdy

    While a transplant is a better option than dialysis, cures for these diseases would be much much better. I have a transplanted kidney and while I am eternally grateful, life is still complicated and full of issues. Since we haven't really cured a disease since polio, I think we should all put pressure where it should be...on the drug companies. They are reaping massive profits, even during a tough economy, and we all suffer from it. I don't believe we should socialize medicine, but I do feel that drug companies should be heavily regulated and allowed to profit more based on the number of CURES they come up with, not treatments. We are incenting the wrong behavior by allowing these companies to be public and solely incented to increase shareholder value. As for paying for organ, sure why not? But it shouldn't preclude the poor from receiving one. Have the government purchase them, and be paid back through the private insurance of the recipient (who already pays today). This way many more needed organs would be available, but not just to the highest bidder. My god people, if we just allow anything to be bought or sold it won't take long until money truly is the only thing that matters.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:47 pm |
  3. JasonL

    I think that it is wrong to sell food, because everyone doesn't have as much money as others. It's like they are auctioning off nutrition and that is wrong. I understand that you farmers want some money, but sustenance isn't something to play around with. I think farming for profit should be illegal. There are other ways to get money. You just have to find a way.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:44 pm |
  4. Laura

    Either way you will have to pay up. It's probably cheaper to buy a kidney than to get treatment for years waiting for someone to die. It's a touchy subject but if someone is willing to sell their kidney I dont see a huge problem with it.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:41 pm |
  5. J Kale

    The problem with legalizing organ sales is that it opens the doors for the exploitation of the poor and the normalization of greatly jeopardizing one's health to temporarily overcome financial burdens.

    In places in the world where selling one's kidney has become an acceptable means earning money, such as impoverished villages in India, the donors are not tested properly before hand to make sure their remaining kidney can take on the work of two, and are not given proper care afterwards to minimize any potential complications. Many of them have been left with chronic health problems which limits their ability to work and sends them farther into poverty.

    A good number of people with kidney disease developed it as a result of diabetes and/or hypertension, and a good number of those people had type 2 diabetes and hypertension from an unhealthy lifestyle, which continued even after they knew they were compromising their health, and their irresponsibility has taken resources away from those who's health conditions were not preventable.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:38 pm |
  6. consistent

    Why wouldn't the "my body, my choice" principle hold true here? If you are an adult and want to affect your body through an abortion, you are able to. But if you are an adult and want to give away a kidney, you can't?

    September 1, 2009 at 8:35 pm |
  7. Peter Rief

    Of course people should be allowed to sell one of thier two kidneys !
    As someone pointed out earlier...doctors get paid ...so why not a willing person who...once again...has two kidneys ?
    The kidney can change the life of the ailing recipient and the money
    could improve the life circumstances of the donor.
    Still...we should have an opt out policy for organ donation like they have in Austria...where it is assumed an accident victim will donate
    organs unless they have specifically opted out. Why are some
    people so afraid of donating thier organs? How selfish can you be ?
    They'll just rot in the ground anyway !

    September 1, 2009 at 8:28 pm |
  8. Peter

    Government could set a fixed price say $25,000 for a kidney transaction.
    Donor receives $20,000, government takes the $5,000 and put it towards the fund that pays for recipients on the list that cannot afford such a transplant. Also if people cannot pay for the kidney how do they pay for the kidney transparent procedure? $25k isn't a lot of money compared to lifetime of dialysis. How much is Medicare paying for these procedures when there is a possible cure for the problem and as someone said it's a win win situation. People only need 1 kidney to live.

    Or government could start with the first 100 donations to be $100k for those super wealthy and put the $75k difference towards the donor list for free recipients. Or $50k per paid kidney which pays for a free kidney transparent on the list. I am sure the people who needs a transplant would prefer this system than waiting years or never get their transparent from the slow moving list.

    Or we could hope that artificial kidneys will be developed in 20 years.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:28 pm |
  9. Troy

    I need to keep a roof over my kids head and put food on the table today. I'll beat the previous ask; $31,500

    I'm serious.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:25 pm |
  10. Daneisha

    The question at hand is should an alive person be stopped from selling their kidneys ? Or should those willing to sell a kidney be allowed to test the market, profit from their own healthy bodies and help those who are dying to buy?

    My opinion is that it is an ehtical and moral decision for an individual to make as far as selling their organs. If a person is willing to make a profit by putting their life at risk while saving another one's life, there shouldn't be any restrictions on that. This allows an opprotunity for poor people to have the chance of their life time to make life better and people who want kidneys and can pay for this have chance to live better lives. With todays economy no one knows what he or she will have to do in order to survive. The cost of living is steadily increasing so the extremes of meeting these costs are increasing as well.

    September 1, 2009 at 8:23 pm |
  11. Kendal Fuller

    I think that it is wrong to sell someone’s organ, because everyone doesn’t have as much money as others. It’s like they are auctioning off organs and that is wrong. I understand that you want some money, but life isn’t something to play around with. I understand why it is illegal. There are other ways to get money. You just have to find a way.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  12. MattWarren

    Who wants mine 32,000 bostontoker@gmail.com

    September 1, 2009 at 7:56 pm |
  13. sm

    regarding equality: if paying for organs was legal, wouldn't it then be covered by insurance? Maybe for a bit extra, but if the money was there for the actual operation, then it would be there for obtaining the organ.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:56 pm |
  14. Julia, Mom to Child Kidney Recipients

    I would gladly support control, living donor, paid donation. Surrogates are allow to be compensated and we're growing an entire human in them. What about egg donors who have to go through medical procedures to donate.

    I still think that insurance/government should pay for it since they would save much more money to get people off of dialysis. For our living, unrelated donors (two friends of the family) who we are eternally grateful for – we would gladly support that they get paid for their sacrifice and risk.

    Currently there are over 80,000 people on the list for a kidney in the U.S.

    One of my children was on dialysis due to Polycystic Kidney Disease – dialysis is a temporary treatment (only 15% kidney function)- and for people to linger on dialysis when there is a solution that could shorten that time, well, that is just inhuman. kidneysandeyes.com

    September 1, 2009 at 7:55 pm |
  15. F. Lindsay

    This is a slippery slope. I fully understand the need of having more donors for those who are in need of a kidney, but where does it stop?
    What about those living in the poorest nations in the world? What would be their prices?
    Would they start to give their healthy organs to wealthier recipients in the West?
    How about drug addicts, gamblers, ... how far would someone go?

    How many organs would you be willing to sell in order to get enough money to pay for the treatment of your very sick child?

    September 1, 2009 at 7:54 pm |
  16. Ron

    "The Island" is not far off.

    What kind of whacked out economic system are we living in which forces people to sell body parts to survive. Donate...yes, but buy and sell? Welcome to the abyss.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:54 pm |
  17. wiilwaal

    everything in this world is corrupt now.money money is all that matters.lets talk about that allegations that were made by the swedish newspaper,isreali soldiers are killing palestians for their organs and selling it .when is enough is gonna be enough.do people think as long as you ignore the problem it will go away.i remember back in few months ago,some rabbis and mayors got arrested for human traffickign and other criminals things.it got little coverage.this is what happends when news is run by big corporations.show only what your advertisers want you to show.the same things happend over and over again,you give people some money and turn their cheek away and figure the problem will eventually go away .and if u make sellig orgains legal..we all knw what is gonna happend next.they r alot lunatiics out there who will stop nothing ............

    September 1, 2009 at 7:53 pm |
  18. Rasczack

    This is why we need to move ahead in stem cell and cloning research. People wouldn't have to wait for a donor and the replacement organ would be a perfect match for the person.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:50 pm |
  19. lahn55

    What's wrong with selling your organs anyway? If a rich guy needs a organ and another guy don't mind giving it up for some cash... then it's a win win situation. Plus, if organ selling is legalized, then insurance company can pay all the costs, saving even more lives...
    .
    The exchange makes even more sense if it's between someone from say, a poor country and a rich country. A poor guy from a third world country can gets the equivalent of 20 years worth of salary for very little risk to his own health... And a relatively well off guy from a rich country can pay relatively little money for the chance to live... Sounds very fair trade to me...
    .
    We give money to wounded military veterans, policemen, firemen... It's is entirely natural to compensate a person for risking their lives lives in order to save others... I don't see why organ donations should be any different.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:46 pm |
  20. Mark

    I can see both an upside and a downside to this issue. The upside is that each individual should have the right to make decision regarding their own body. If they find a benefit in selling a kidney to someone who can afford it, then they should have that right. The downside is 1. What if that individual needs a kidney themselves later on? or 2. In desperate times, people make decisions that aren't always the wisest. In regards to some waiting receipiants not being able to afford an organ, ours has always been a free market society, with price tags basically put on every commodity man has to offer. It sounds cold, but thats reality. Those with money and connections get better medical care than those that are desititute and have no one to turn to.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:36 pm |
  21. GRanny

    I think making it legal to sell a kidney would make it much safer for both the donor and recipient. I don't see anything wrong with it as long as the seller is of legal age and in his/her right mind . It would help people on both sides. Those who need money and those who need a kidney. It could save lives and help people who need cash.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:34 pm |
  22. Steven C

    Few have taken notice that this story follows on the heels of the Swedish story about Israeli troops harvesting organs from freshly shot Palestinians.

    It is all too convenient that this story starts out with the phrase that illegal organ traffic is being investigated in the US and Israel.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm |
  23. di

    I agree that all persons should have a chance of receiving an organ, not just people who have the financial means. I may never be in the position of having to buy an organ for a loved one, but then again it could happen in the future. And I would do that for someone I loved.
    I do not know the specifics of organs through purchase, or by way of other continents, but hope the donors are screened well–wheverever they come from.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:23 pm |
  24. nortela

    The issue here is that there are serious risks to kidney donation: you may get $20K, but you are more likely to suffer dehydration, heat stroke, have more complications in surgeries later, not to mention the affects of major surgery in the short term. If you are saving a family member, that's one thing. But for $20K? There's a good chance you will cost the system more money in later complications....as a society its financially more beneficial if you keep your organs and donate when you die.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:21 pm |
  25. BK

    I would sell my kidney for the right price! However, if someone needed one I would probably give it to them...but if they could spare a few $$$$ it would help!

    September 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm |
  26. Steven McBride

    Sorry, I know this a concern of WHO, but I've know many people including my brother, who have gone through all of the "proper" channels & they have been waiting years for a kidney.

    My brother's first transplant failed & he's back on dialysis for over 6 years again. He finally gave up on Mayo Clinic – they are useless in Phoenix. Mayo kept him waiting & waiting even though most of people in his donor group finally received theirs.

    Of course there are not enough donors, but I think we're going to see more and more black market transplants – people are suffering and are desperate.

    September 1, 2009 at 7:00 pm |
  27. Annie Kate

    Everyone that needs a transplant should have an equal chance at receiving a donated organ; not just those who can pay thousands of dollars for one. Making this legal may compound the difficulty in obtaining a compatible organ for the many who cannot pay a competitive price in what would be the market for an organ.

    September 1, 2009 at 6:25 pm |
  28. Muthyavan.

    This shows how corrupt has the world medical service is turning to be and most of these cases are from wealthy nations where illicit transplant is against the medical law. Laws governing medical transplant of organs should be streamlined and strict guidence should be laid preventing any illegal marketing of organs. It is not like illegal drug bussiness or slave trading of olden days. Most of these offences are commited by wealthy peoples from wealthy democratic nations. Each country should deal with volentary doners from their own nations to an international list for emergency required transplant in another nation. As a human aspect of saving lifes all corrupt practices adopted should be legally stoped internationally.

    September 1, 2009 at 6:01 pm |
  29. Teresa

    I vote for being legally able to sell body organs if one is over 21 yrs. of age. WHY NOT? I'd say $20,000 for a kidney is fair.

    My mom was on dialysis for 3 miserable years and not considered a good donor recipient ( her age ). For some people dialysis is not that bad. Every week one of my siblings would call and say: umm, just wanted you to know Mom is going to the hospital tonight there was a problem... blah blah blah.... Problem after problem after problem. The last call was to say Mom went to the hospital w/ a possible heart attack. Dialysis can be very rough on some people.

    Mom had nine fairly healthy kids. Some of us COULD donate a kidney for her, some of us WOULD donate ( if no one else would volunteer) , some of us physically COULDNT donate ( but would take care of the one recovering) and some simply mentally couldnt fathom it. But, in the end, she was terrified that the donor child might die and she couldnt live with that.

    Dialysis is for temporary survival ONLY. It's not for long term. Long term is a kidney transplant.

    If people want to sell their kidneys for money, make it all legal and nice-nice and oh, ya, let's make sure the govt. gets their take of any monies... let people sell !!! People get money for blood dont they? And with the recession, I'm sure blood donations are UP.

    We can donate sperm and eggs that make an actual person, but not a kidney to keep an actual human alive? Sperm and egg donors get paid dont they???

    September 1, 2009 at 4:20 pm |
  30. nand mehta

    It is win win . Lot of poor people will get chance of their life time to make life better and people who want kidney and can pay for this have chance to live better life.

    Do doctors ,hospitals provide their servcies free?

    I don't understand opposition to this

    September 1, 2009 at 4:01 pm |
  31. Michael T.Jackson

    My opinion is that it is an ehtical and moral decision for that individual to make as far as selling their organs,with to day economy one never knows what he or she will have to do in order to survive such as morgtage paymnets oy college tuition for his or her child or even for themselves. This topic is very interesting we dicussed this issue in my Law and Medical Ethics class and some of our answers were very intriguing as to and how to regulate such practices.

    September 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm |