The Red Market

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Whenever I’m on a date, and the woman asks me to tell her something about myself, my answer is always this: I’m a science-fiction geek. The night either goes downhill from there, or we end up in her apartment debating about the correct pronunciation of Klingon words and how Solaris is, or isn’t, the best science-fiction film in the history of cinema.

Where does my unconditional love for sci-fi stem from? Maybe it began in third grade when I witnessed unidentifiable flying orbs dancing high up in the sky during recess. Perhaps it stems from going to a science magnet school that indoctrinated a lifelong love for anything related to science. Those are all valid answers, but I like to blame television.

I used to watch those old Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits episodes in the cavernous living room of our old Brooklyn duplex. The TV screen would flicker like an eccentric mosquito zapper, filling in all the dark crevices of the room with photons, then the eerie music would creep in. At that point, I was already hooked like a trout with an IQ of zero.

Television can take you places where you’ve never been before, and could never go. For an escapist, the bright screen is this doorway to another dimension, and sci-fi shows provided the setting and scenarios for my fantasies. I love all kinds of twisted, mind-bending plots that left its residue on your brain long after you finished watching it. But the storylines that had always sparked my increasingly grotesque imagination were the ones in which people were kidnapped by a diabolical, soulless criminal organization, and their body parts subsequently cut out, then meticulously organized like offal in a Moroccan outdoor market.

As a kid, my aunt used to warn me not to stay out too late. They told me, with a straight face, that there were bad men who kidnap kids like me, take them to a farm out in some secluded area, slice them open, then sell the fresh organs to wealthy people who don’t have the time to wait on the donor’s list.

For a short while I actually believed it and a rush of dread shot to my head whenever I found myself alone in the middle of the street as the sunlight dwindled and the street lamps casted its dull orange net over me. Can you blame me? The adults told me these stories as if they were a fact of life—the way the world worked. It wasn’t until later on that I realized this was just a campaign by adults to get me inside by dinner time and finally do my homework.

But is there any truth to such urban legends?

In December 2009, CNN published an article about the Israeli government admitting to harvesting organs in the 90s. Body parts, such as corneas and other organs, were taken from cadavers without permission from the families. This was supposedly done legally by the state, but even Dr. Yehuda Hiss, who was head of the state-run forensic institute that conducted the operations, himself acknowledged that such practices tiptoed on blurry legal boundaries.

At end of the Kosovo War, reports of kidnapping and organ theft circulated in the Balkans. Initially, a lot of these reports were denied by the accused—in this case, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army—and were considered propaganda, or simply rumors. Over a decade later, former members of the KLA who supposedly witnessed these acts finally gave detailed testimonies to U.N. investigators.

If you think this whole business is absurd, ask yourself this question: What’s my most valuable property? You might say your house, your car, your cell phone, laptop, or even your prized Darth Vader paper mache mask. Well, how about your heart, your brain, your eyes, your skin?

Poets and philosophers say that we are the sum of our memories. That’s great and all, but if you think about it, we’re really just the sum total of meat, bones, guts and a splash of blood. We see ourselves as a single entity, but we’re made up of various components, each one with its own important function. It’s only when these components work in synchronicity that we feel whole. Our body is our most valuable asset. It’s yours and yours to keep, or at least until someone takes your left kidney.

Organs aren’t the only parts of the body that are highly prized. The use of embryonic stem cells may be mired in controversy, but there have been cases that have shown its potential as a source of profit in the underground market.

From April 2009 through February 2010, Fredda Branyon of Scottsdale, Arizona, manufactured stem cell drugs unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration, then sold and delivered 183 vials of the stem cells to a buyer in Brownsville, Texas. The FBI found her manufacturing lab and was convicted for not possessing the license, nor the experience, to create the stem cell drugs. Her case is only one example, but I’m certain there are operations in other countries whose government doesn’t have such strict regulations when it comes to bio-engineering procedures.

How far will someone go to have a new organ, a new life? The person in Texas who bought those stem cell drugs may or may have not known that the drugs were effective, but why take the risk? In any case, this is something that should be monitored more, like human trafficking and the illegal arms trade. In this global economy’s current state, coupled with the increasing advancement of medical technology, the Red Market is something that could quickly evolve if not kept in check.