Once thought to be the stuff of nightmares, organ trafficking is a threat that just became more real by (officially) landing on our doorstep. Miranda Farrell finds out if we’re prepared.
On 28 July 2011, news broke that an elderly Sydney woman was at the centre of an Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation. Suffering from a kidney condition, the woman was suspected of bringing a younger Filipino woman to Sydney with the intent of harvesting an organ.
The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported that the organ deal was struck without the alleged victim’s full consent and was discovered during a pre-operation screening interview at a Sydney hospital.
But a year after the AFP raided the elderly woman’s home seeking evidence, the SMH reported no charges would be laid. The AFP investigation had taken so long the elderly woman at the heart of the scandal died.
This is Australia’s first known case of human organ trafficking.
The AFP and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) refuse to comment on the case, still labelling it an “ongoing matter”.
Despite having only one case of organ trafficking on our national record, the United Nations (UN) has warned organ trafficking is on the rise internationally. The UK Guardian reported last month that 10,000 black market organ transplants now occur annually, or more than one per hour.
This points to a number of issues facing Australia: firstly, it highlights the difficulty of collecting evidence in cases spanning multiple countries and jurisdictions; it raises concerns about the effectiveness of Australia’s laws on trafficking; and it shines a spotlight on Australia’s desperate organ donor shortage.
Former Minister for Justice, Brendan O’Connor, told the SMH that organ donations by “genetically or emotionally related donors” is internationally recognised as an established, ethically-acceptable practice.
The legitimate practice of organ transplants should not be confused with organ trafficking or ‘transplant commercialism’.
The major international law aimed at suppressing and preventing organ trafficking is the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Trafficking in Persons Protocol).
According to the UN, organ trafficking is an organ transplant (or attempted transplant) involving force or other forms of coercion (including deception) over a person in a vulnerable position. It may also involve the giving/receiving of payment.
A signatory to the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, Australia is bound to criminalise organ trafficking.
On May 30 Attorney General Nicola Roxon presented a Bill to Parliament hoping to tighten Australia’s anti-trafficking legislation. Titled Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Bill 2012, the proposed legislation attempts to tackle all forms of ‘modern-day slavery’ in Australia.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General said the proposed bill would ensure Australia satisfies its international obligations to the UN Protocol. The black market organ trade would be “comprehensively criminalised” under the new legislation, she said.
“There has only been one investigation into organ trafficking in Australia, however any exploitation of this sort is unacceptable.”
In a speech to parliament Ms Roxon said the new laws would more clearly define the circumstances in which an organ trafficking offence applies. Law enforcement would also have strengthened powers to investigate cases of trafficking.
Many deplorable examples from around the world remind us why human organ trafficking is an important global issue.
The United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC) warns of “organized crime groups” who “lure people abroad with false promises and convince or force them to sell their organs for a low price”.
They say that in the majority of cases, those selling their organs are motivated to escape desperate poverty. But “the recipients of the organs pay a much higher price than the donors receive”.
Even more disturbing are the descriptions of the ways in which organs are sometimes extracted.
“People may be kidnapped, killed and sold, especially children, for their organs,” it says.
“There have been cases where a victim will go to a doctor or hospital for an unrelated illness or accident, but in the hospital, the person’s kidney is removed without their knowledge or consent.”
The University of Queensland’s Professor Andreas Schloenhardt and Samantha Garbutt examined Australia’s involvement in organ trafficking in a 2012 paper entitled “Trafficking in persons for the purpose of organ removal: International law and Australian practice”.
Schloenhardt and Garbutt believe issues associated with black market organ transplants would be “better addressed by a public health approach than through criminalisation and law enforcement”.
They say it is surprising that human organ trafficking cases do not emerge more frequently in Australia, given our “very significant shortage of donor organs”.
Australians are more likely to travel overseas to harvest an organ, or engage in ‘transplant tourism’, according to Schloenhardt and Garbutt. They cite a 2007 study indicating that at least 20 Australians travel overseas each year “as transplant tourists for trafficked organs”.
An interesting point they say is yet to be discussed nationally or internationally is “how the culpability – both criminal and moral – of the intended organ recipients is balanced against their right to life”.
Organ trafficking, they maintain, can be the result of a desperate attempt to gain a donor organ when “legal domestic channels are unavailable or have been exhausted”.
“In many cases the involvement of the recipients will be driven by their basic desire to stay alive.”
“This is the only viable solution for societies,” they said.
The Government website DonateLife reveals that around 1600 Australians are on organ transplant waiting lists with the average wait time ranging between six months and four years.
According to Medicare Australia, 10.56 per cent of the estimated total female population has legally consented to be on the Australian Organ Donor Register, and 6.86 per cent for males.
But when the time comes to make the call on whether a person’s organs will be donated, DonateLifesays, “Australia’s family consent rate is low”.
In 2011, the average Australian donor rate was 14.9 donors per million people.
Experts believe that diet and lifestyle changes have increased the incidence of diseases such as diabetes and are fuelling further demand for transplants.