How Organ Donation Works

The Organ Black Market
Alistair Cooke was among the victims of a tissue black market scam.
Alistair Cooke was among the victims of a tissue black market scam.
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Though the organ and tissue donation market are highly regulated in the United States, underhanded dealings between shadowy operators are not unheard of. It's illegal in the U.S., and most other nations, to offer or receive compensation for an organ donation. But a black market for human organs does exist.

Citizens of impoverished nations or regions are often tempted to sell one of their kidneys on the black market. In some cases, these entrepreneurial donors are recruited (or learn through word-of-mouth and volunteer) and flown to another nation, where the organ is removed in a makeshift operating room. In 2003, an illegal kidney-procurement network was uncovered in South Africa. The donors were recruited mostly from the slums of Brazil, flown to South Africa where the operation was performed, compensated between $6,000 to $10,000 and returned home [source: Rohter]. The South African middlemen were then able to sell the organs for as much as $100,000 [source: Handwerk].

Villagers in a destitute part of India who sold their kidneys in a similar scheme received about $800 for their organs [source: Handwerk]. At one time, Israeli organ brokers were obtaining kidneys from people in former Soviet-bloc nations and transplanting them into patients who traveled to Turkey for the operation. For the broker, there was money to be made -- one Israeli middleman in the organ trade made $4 million before being caught [source: Rohter].

In the U.S., a black market for human tissue exists. It usually involves bodies about to be cremated. A black market broker may enter into a financial arrangement with a criminally minded funeral home director and carve up the bodies before they're cremated. Falsified papers -- such as consent forms and death certificates -- are produced, and the tissue can then be sold to an American research facility. Sometimes, the tissue may be from a body with an infectious disease, but is sold with documents that claim a different cause of death or medical history. Illegally obtained tissue from just one cadaver has been known to reach 90 tissue recipients [source: Bauer].

In one high-profile case, Michael Mastromarino, an oral surgeon in New York, opened Biomedical Tissue Services with an embalmer, Joseph Nicelli, in 2000. For many years, they harvested human tissue from bodies provided by funeral homes and sold it to research facilities. One of the plundered bodies belonged to Alistair Cooke, host of "Masterpiece Theatre." The "body snatchers" were eventually arrested and charged with numerous crimes.

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