Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Red Market by Scott Carney, a review

Scott Carney is an investigative reporter who became interested in the "red market" economy while on assignment for Wired.com and Mother Jones Magazine. The topic kept expanding and before long, the author was deep into the research that would become this book, an examination of the trafficking--legal and not--in human tissue. As it turns out, all those urban legands about waking up in a hotel room soaking in a tub of ice and missing a kidney are not far from the truth, and Carney recounts tales of people kidnapped and kept captive in order to drain their blood and whole industries related to what is called "reproductive tourism." Along the way he gives his readers the history of blood donation in America and the UK and explains how laws designed to protect patient privacy actually help the criminals who are making billions off the illegal trade in human tissue of all kinds.

This is fascinating stuff, a peek into a world that operates on the edges of medical research and in the shadows of government institutions. A thriller writer could find a lifetime of inspiration here. Who knew that India was the source of most of the skeletons found in medical schools today, or that they were sourced from bone traders who got them from grave robbers? (Carney interviews one bone trader who freely admits he snatches burning bodies from funeral pyres as soon as the families have left.) India's ban on exporting human tissue has onlly driven the bone trade underground, and Carney recounts a visit to a rural police station where a cache of skulls has been confiscated and bags of leg bones are coveted by both the Buddhists in next-door Bhutan (as raw material for flutes) and hospitals who want to use them for grafts.


Carney explores the reality of selling body parts, which is often seen as a ticket out of poverty and which rarely accomplishes that goal. Benefits, he says, only flow upward. That's particularly true of the women who become involved in reproductive tourism, selling their eggs and renting their wombs out to foreign tourists who want to have babies at cut-rate prices. The in vitro business is booming in Cyprus, Carney tells us, where a ready supply of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine ensure women are purchasing DNA that will endow their offspring with light skin. Carney also recounts a tale of an Indian couple whose son was kidnapped and sold into adoption. they have traced him to a home in the Midwest but the adoptive parents will not cooperate with investigators who want to test his DNA to make a positive identification.

Carney believes the illegal trade in "red market" goods and the enormous profits gained from such sales would drop of if there were more transparency involved in the procedures. If, for instance, someone who receives a transplanted kidney could trace the source of that kidney, stolen kidneys would be a lot less common. He makes a good case for making all adoptions open, and cutting out payments for blood donations, which lowers the quality of a blood supply as well as opening it up to such exploitive practices as using prisoners to provide the blood. (The chapter "Blood Money" is one of the best in the book.)

This is a provocative book that brings up moral issues far beyond the bioethics of what it means to use someone else's "replacement parts" ro ensure a person's health. But along with the ethical issues raised, there are riveting stories of what's going on in this worldwide, extremely lucrative business.

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