What is a kidney worth?
(Page 2 of 11)
In the seaside resort city of Durban, South Africa, private investigator Johan Wessels is working in his home office, plinking away at the computer keyboard. The phone rings. It's a woman from the health department. She wants to know if he'd be willing to work on a case under something called the Human Tissue Act.Skip to next paragraph
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In 24 years as a police detective and private investigator, Johan has tackled all kinds of cases - smuggling, embezzlement, bribery. He's achieved a 98 percent conviction rate. But he's never heard about this act and has little idea what he's getting into as he says yes.
Hanging up, he yells to his wife, Carol, in the kitchen. "That was the health department. They want me to investigate some case about human tissues."
His partner of 29 years is pleased. "I've been praying all morning about you getting more work," she says. Both are "reborn Christians." They read the Bible daily and sit up front at church on Sundays.
His curiosity piqued, Johan is faxed a copy of South Africa's Human Tissue Act and scans it.
Sect. 1: "[T]issue means ... any flesh, bone, organ, gland, or body fluid...." Sect. 28: "No person ... may receive any payment in ... the ... acquisition ... of any tissue...." Section 33: Violators "shall be ... liable ... to a fine not exceeding 2,000 Rand or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year...."
One year in jail or a fine of about $300. This thing has "no teeth," Johan thinks. Maybe that's why they're buying and selling organs in South Africa.
It's June 2003, and Johan is embarking on what will become one of the toughest cases of his career - not only a test of his detective skills, but also of the ethical and religious values he holds dear.
Hernani has big dreams for the $6,000 he's expecting to get for one of his kidneys. But he also has doubts. One day as he's walking home - wondering if the South Africans will take a lung or cornea, too, or just abandon him in a country where he can't speak the language - he bumps into a friend who's driving a shiny white Volkswagen. He's heard through the grapevine that this friend is one of dozens from Recife who went to South Africa and came back alive. The early ones got $10,000 for their kidneys, a fortune in a neighborhood where many earn the minimum wage - about $1,000 a year.
Hernani gets in the car. He is not normally the inquisitive type, but today he pelts his friend with questions.
"How much did you get paid?" he asks.
"Do they pay in advance?"
"How were you treated?"
"What is the operation like?"
"Do they take care of you?"
"Will I be OK?"
The friend says all the right things. Ten minutes later, Hernani gets out of the car, his mind at rest. He is going to South Africa to sell his kidney.
* * *
In the months since they met in Egipcio's, Hernani and the little bald man - he calls him Captain Ivan - have become fast friends. Ivan Bonifacio da Silva, a retired police officer, has taken Hernani under his wing, patiently explaining how the kidney switch works, and assuaging his lingering concerns.
He's also been shepherding him into a whole new world. He tells Hernani where to get the tests to prove he's healthy enough for the operation. He's with Hernani when he gets the passport that will allow him to leave Brazil for the first time in his life. And in October 2002, on the eve of Hernani's trip to Durban, Captain Ivan hands him $500 - and assures him there is another $5,500 waiting for him when he gets home.
Six thousand dollars. It's somewhere near the average going rate for kidneys in today's global organ trade. Palestinian men who sold their kidneys in Saddam Hussein's Iraq after the first Gulf War got just $500 to $1,000. They helped make Iraq the organ-trading hub of the Arab world until the latest war broke out. In the slums of Manila, where corneas, livers, and lungs are also offered for sale, kidneys fetch about $2,000, according to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, cofounder of Organs Watch, a group at the University of California, Berkeley, that tracks the trade. Some Israeli organ donors have gotten $20,000, she says. And a few American sellers have gotten $30,000 to $50,000 for their kidneys.