Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers

Scott Carney’s 2011 book, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, is not a book for the squeamish or for the faint of heart. If you can get past the slightly uncomfortable premise though, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking read about the implications of living in a world where the component parts of people’s bodies are attached to an economic value, and how people are exploited into literally selling parts of themselves for a chance to escape poverty.

Carney, an investigative journalist by trade and a contributing editor at Wired, begins his book by outlining the types of economic markets people are already familiar with: the white market which contains all the sale of legal goods and services; the black market which deals in the sale of the illegal materials; and the grey market which deals with legal commodities distributed through illegal means. Carney proposes a fourth market, the red market, which deals in the sale and distribution of human tissue.  What follows is a book focusing each chapter highlighting products that we all possess but have likely never thought of selling such as: bones, kidneys, blood and hair. The book also investigates the practice of paid surrogacy, illegal adoptions and paid clinical drug testing.

In his introduction he states how his personal interest in the subject matter began.  An interesting story about how as a teacher in India, a student he was responsible for committed suicide. As her chaperone he was responsible for transporting the body from rural India back to her parents in the United States.  This experience opens his eyes to the price tag that accompanies every human life, and how people become, in many cases, treated like objects after they die. These themes are present throughout the book.  The setting of India is important, as most of the stories are centered in various parts of India and its thriving red market.  However the book does recognise that the red market operates on a huge international scale and explores the global red market.

Even though this is his first published book, Carney’s journalistic expertise is on full display. Each chapter is well written and well researched. He has an excellent knack for finding and writing engaging human interest stories, in all of his interviews you get a good sense of the people he is talking to and how desperate their situations are. You also can see the immense amount of respect he has for the people he speaks to and interacts with. He never judges people who have entered the red market, instead he asks that the reader understand how they are victims of terrible situations. He does not however refrain from judging the middlemen and the people who benefit from the red market and exploit and coerce people with no other choice, into exploitative and potentially risky situations.

Given the subject matter it should come as no surprise that these stories are more often than not, absolutely heartbreaking. One chapter immediately comes to mind about a young boy who was kidnapped in India and adopted by an American couple who was told the child was an orphan. Carney interviews the boy’s parents in India, who have spent their lives trying to find out what happened to their son. Thinking they have tracked down the boy’s adoptive family in America they ask Carney to reach out to them and ask them to let them be in contact with their child.  Carney agrees and the family refuses to believe that they could have participated in something akin to child trafficking and refuse to reach out to the family in India.

Many of Carney’s stories reflect this, people believe that they are being altruistic but in reality they are not thinking about where their donated eggs, surrogate mothers and adopted children come from. Many people refuse to think about who may be exploited in the supply chain.

 One of the reasons for this, he suggests, is caused by the language that we use to speak about the red market. We ‘donate’ blood and organs; we ‘give the gift of life,’ when we become organ donors. This language he argues leads to people being exploited, since people do not think of kidneys, blood and eggs as commodities, or as something desperate people may sell in order to feed their families. We see them as precious gifts.  As someone who regularly donates blood I see this language being used in advertising by Canadian Blood Services regularly. Absent from their pamphlets is the reality that my blood may be sold to other hospitals for profit.

In the beginning of the book Carney admits there are no easy answers to solving the problem of the existence of the red market, he wonders if a system where the rich do not benefit from the bodies of the poor can exist in a world where people want to live longer, combat infertility and adopt foreign children. One of his proposed solutions is to have fully transparent donations. Carney argues that when every adoption is fully open and every organ is fully traceable, this will force people to see that the donations come from real people and leave less room for middlemen to exploit the system.

“The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, “is an amazing read. At parts it can be disturbing, a tad graphic, though the pictures featured in the book are thankfully gore free. As someone who is squeamish and an avid avoider of any and all horror movies I did not find it too distressing and as someone who is a frequent blood donor as well as a registered organ and bone-marrow donor I found it absolutely fascinating.

After reading the book and thinking about the questions it raises, I too agree that there are no easy answers. We as potential customers of the red market have to ask ourselves if we are hurting anyone by helping ourselves.

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