Executive Summary – Trafficking in Human Organs: An Overview

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Organ transplantation surgery has saved countless lives since its advent in the 1950s. As the techniques and technologies used in transplantation medicine improve, positive outcomes for donors and recipients are increasing. Demand for this treatment, however, far exceeds organ availability. It is estimated that legal transplants performed cover the needs of only 10% of all patients on waiting lists worldwide. As a result, thousands of people die every year waiting for this procedure.

The desperate need for organ transplantation surgeries has given rise to a lucrative, transnational criminal enterprise that enables organ seekers to purchase organs from donors. This enterprise, commonly referred to as organ trafficking, is a global phenomenon. Even though it is illegal in most countries, some estimates indicate that trafficked organs account for up to 10% of organ transplants performed around the world, with profits conservatively estimated to be between US$840 million to US$1.7 billion annually.

Illegally trafficked organs are very expensive. According to some reports, the cost of a kidney, the most commonly trafficked organ, can range from US$50,000 to US$120,000. Thus, purchasers are normally wealthy persons from developed nations such as Canada. Because the purchase is generally conducted through a vast network that includes a broker who acts as an intermediary between the organ buyer and seller, a local recruiter, as well as medical professionals and local hospitals performing the illicit organ removal, very little money is left for the “donor.” Victims are commonly from poor and vulnerable populations in developing countries. Many are reported to have been misled, coerced or otherwise forced into selling their organs.

While organ trafficking is an internationally recognized problem, and attempts to prevent and prohibit it have experienced limited success, this underground crime remains a pervasive problem in many parts of the world. Part of the challenge is that many countries, including Canada, do not explicitly prohibit travelling abroad for organ transplantation surgeries that have been organized through illicit means. Thus far, legislative attempts in Canada to strengthen federal laws relating to organ trafficking have been unsuccessful.

This Background Paper provides an overview of organ trafficking and Canada’s involvement in this illicit activity. It identifies key terms; lays out some of the main issues; and summarizes actions taken by the international community, as well as Canada, to combat organ trafficking.

Read the full text of the Background Paper: Trafficking in Human Organs: An Overview

Authors: Jean-Philippe Duguay, Brian Hermon and Alexandra Smith, Library of Parliament

Categories: Executive summary, Health and safety, Law, justice and rights

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