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April 13, 2011 / schulerbooks

The Red Market, by Scott Carney

While leading a study abroad program in India, Scott Carney lost a student to an apparent accident. Legally responsible to see that her body returned home to America, he discovered just how quickly a person transforms into a commodity upon death. As he puts it, “more than anything else, her death taught me that every corpse has a stakeholder… people seemed to come out of the woodwork to make demands on what was left of her material self.”

This sad experience eventually led to his noticing the so called Red Market — a largely underground phenomenon which seeks to take the human body, especially its myriad and valuable parts, and funnel them off to some buyer, somewhere. Corneas, kidneys, blood, hair, and children are all highly valuable commodities, and while it’s illegal to actually sell your parts (pre or post mortem) it is not against the law for those who do the harvesting to tack on large costs.

That some of these costs go to reimbursing the donors — or, increasingly, shady procurers — under the table goes without saying, hence the market, itself. But while most well-informed people are at least vaguely aware that money has to be changing hands somewhere along the line, the exact dimensions of its disturbing existence are something we’d rather not contemplate.

Contemplate it we should, though, Carney insists — especially in areas like the Indian Subcontinent, where it seems a plague of money-eyed ghouls has descended. Children are kidnapped to be sent to the United States for adoption, men are abducted, locked up, and drained of their blood once a week to fuel a near-empty blood bank, skeletons are ripped out of graves for anatomical models, and tsunami refugees are suckered out of their kidneys. And these are only some of the more notable stories in a large and long atrocity list.

But then the so-called developed world is not immune to this, either. Israel used to harvest corneas from the Palestinians they killed in self defense, and someone over here has to be arranging for the sale of the organs taken from desperate dupes in “Kidneyvakkam.” You can only donate blood, but college students and lower-income adults supplement their income by selling blood plasma.

There’s also the phenomenon of the professional guinea pig: people who put their health on the line in exchange for thousands of dollars compensation by volunteering for clinical drug trials. The author had a go at this, early on, and was lucky to escape with a headache and a hard-on. Some are not so lucky.

In the end, that’s what The Red Market comes down to — luck. Either you’re lucky enough to be born somewhere that provides enough economic opportunities to better yourself, and avoid tons of student debt while doing it, or you’re somewhere that numerous insects in human shape are happy to help you pay your obligations, so long as you’re willing to part with parts of yourself. As Carney notes, the market defies gravity, as the valuable viscera — and most of the money — goes up and not down.

The Red Market is both fascinating and disturbing, and provides a window on a world that most people would rather ignore, or pretend does not exist. The read is occasionally undermined by the author’s tendency to editorialize on the subject (who can blame him, though?), but he makes his case that how we handle our bodies, living and dead, needs a serious overhaul.

The Red Market drops in June of 2011

Jim Tremlett — Eastwood

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