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Book Review: The Red Market

An investigative journalist exposes the gruesome global trade in flesh and blood

Three years ago I hauled my ailing cousin to a backwater of China to find him a replacement kidney. People asked, “Aren’t you troubled by the morality of such a thing?” Of course I was troubled: I started from the position of being troubled. Had I read Scott Carney’s The Red Market beforehand, I would have been so much more troubled I might have been tempted to stay home and let my cousin die.

Subtitled On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, Carney’s book lays out precisely the sort of details I didn’t want to know about the so-called “red market” — that is, the black market in body parts (and even whole people). I didn’t want to know, for example, how “neocannibalistic” — indeed, how ruthlessly criminal, in some quarters — this global enterprise has become. I didn’t want to learn, as Carney’s grisly tale makes clear, that “our appetite for human flesh is higher now than at any other time in history … Several billion dollars’ worth of humanity changes hands every year.” And I certainly didn’t want to vicariously visit the “medical ward fit for a horror movie” that the author uncovered inside sheds on an innocent-looking dairy farm in India: There, Carney witnessed inmates who had been shackled to cots and forced to give blood every few days. When the prisoner-patients were finally rescued by Indian police, their skin had grown so gray and dehydrated that the examining doctor said “you could pinch [it] and it would just stay there like molded clay.”

Carney — a contributing editor at Wired magazine whose investigative journalism has been featured on NPR, the BBC and National Geographic TV — kicks off the proceedings with a disturbingly mercantile inventory of his own body: “I weigh just a little under 200 pounds, have brown hair, blue eyes, and a full set of teeth…. Both of my kidneys function properly, and my heart runs at a steady clip of 87 beats per minute. All in, I figure I’m worth about $250,000.”

In a book whose cover depicts a human skeleton with a blood-red price tag dangling from a metacarpal (subtlety is in scant supply throughout), Carney recaps the five years he spent crisscrossing India, Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa to expose the “commodification” of human beings in a global “body bazaar”: “The ample supply of available organs in the third world and excruciatingly long waiting lists in the first world,” he reports with admirable understatement, “make organ brokering a profitable occupation.” And that imbalance, predicts Carney, is likely only to skyrocket in coming years.

Of course, as he points out, there are important upsides to transplant technology, blood collection and adoption programs. Patients are given hope, medical miracles are performed, cousins are saved.  There’s even the unsavory but real (if morally destabilizing) fact that poor people around the world are able to use the monetary value of their organs as a “critical social safety net.” But after reading The Red Market, there’s no disputing Carney’s conclusion that a “radical transparency” of the entire flesh-and-blood business is called for: “While there are often benefits to moving tissue and bodies between owners, middlemen open the door to dangerous abuses. The only way to get rid of them is to let the sun shine in and expose the entire supply chain from beginning to end.”

Carney had to develop a hard carapace to report this story, and he has succeeded in exposing the worldwide network of unscrupulous traffickers harvesting the blood, bones, and bodies of the planet’s downtrodden merely to turn a profit. Readers who dare to pick up his brave and at times blood-curdling book will be haunted by its disturbing images — and forced to think twice about tangling, however altruistically, with a deeply troubling enterprise.

Daniel Asa Rose is the author of Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant — and Save His Life.