Organ Trafficking: The Reluctant Medical Sleuth

Dr Nancy Schepers-Hughes

Prof Nancy Schepers-Hughes, director of Organs Watch

Founder and director of Organs Watch, Prof Nancy Schepers-Hughes, has made it her ‘midlife’s mission’ to expose the human rights abuses of organ traffickers or ‘kidney hunters’, as she calls them.

Her earlier research on street kids and death squads in Brazil prepared her to undertake research on a topic that began with anecdotal stories relating to the kidnapping of poor people to steal or buy their organs.

While these ‘rumours’ were ridiculed by many of her colleagues and transplant professionals, Prof Schepers-Hughes persisted with her investigations because nobody else seemed to care, she told Medical Chronicle.

Over the years, she has played a major role in ensuring that authorities around the world are aware of the activities of human organ traffickers in their countries.

In the US, for example, she contributed to the downfall of notorious Israeli trafficker, Levy Isaac Rosenbaum. Although not completely satisfied with the way the prosecution was handled, she is hopeful that Rosenbaum’s guilty plea will send a message to US transplant teams to exercise greater diligence in the screening of ­living unrelated kidney donors so that the vulnerable and trafficked persons are protected rather than exploited.

Also instrumental in exposing SA’s so-called ‘Kidneygate’ scandal, she said the recent application of the four doctors and two former employees of Netcare’s transplant unit at its St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban, to have all charges dropped against them, is not surprising.

Although sympathetic to the negative impact the long, drawn-out legal process has had on the accused, she stressed that it must be remembered that they were not the only ones caught up in the SA-Brazilian-Romanian-Turkish-US organ trafficking network.

This should not be construed as her having any animosity towards the Durban surgeons or their co-accused, explained Prof Scheper-Hughes, because at the end of the day, one has empathy for ‘almost everyone in this sad, sad business’.

A renowned medical anthropologist at the University of California, Berkley (US) and a key expert witness for the prosecution in the case, she suggests that everyone – from the brokers, the translators, the hoteliers, the buyers, the sellers, the blood technicians, the nurses, the surgeons, the hospital administrators, the travel agents to the bankers – were, knowingly or not, complicit in the operation of an organised crime network.

Although initially reluctant to accept the role of medical sleuth, she realised that she had to do something to address the ‘enormous impasses and obstacles she encountered in trying to get reasonably truthful accounts and statistics from domestic and global transplant associations, professional groups, organ procurement organisations, hospitals and transplant units’.

As a member of the Bellagio Task Force on transplantation funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, she started her investigations by following the networks of organ traffickers from country to country to find out on the ground what was happening. In time, she was able to ‘connect the dots’ and identify the players. What she found, she said, was that transplantations in most countries were anything but transparent.

As a visiting professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town in 1993/94, she began to learn of questionable practices of organ- and tissue-harvesting in SA. In 1997/98 she continued her research and identified private hospitals and clinics in public hospitals conducting transplants involving foreign donors and recipients.

She reported her findings to the then head of the SA Transplant Society and later to a special committee of the World Health Organization. She also tried, in vain, to bring her concerns to the attention of two of SA’s former health ministers.

In 2001, as part of an Organs Watch investigation, Prof Scheper-Hughes visited Israel where an international organs and transplant broker told her that she was recruiting kidney ‘sellers’ from Brazil because, she said, the Brazilians, were ‘happy to be trafficked’ to SA.

In 2003, she brought the plight of the Brazilian ‘donors’ to the world’s attention at a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission held in Recife, Brazil. That same year, she was invited by the SA Police Service (SAPS) and officials from the Department of Health to share her expertise on how networks were formed and how they operated in Israel, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Brazil and SA.

She then informed the SAPS about the activities of the notorious Israeli trafficker, Ilan Perry, in SA, which led to the police investigation and the subsequent arrest of the people implicated in the illegal transplants at the Netcare St Augustine Hospital. According to Prof Scheper-Hughes, she considers the case a model to the world of how to effectively combat the global traffic in humans and their organs.

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