Organ theft

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Organ theft is the forcible removal of a person's organs to be used as transplants and sold on the black market. While some supposed cases of organ theft are urban legends, others have been found to be true.[1] It is also a commonly used trope in science fiction.[2]

The urban legend[edit]

As an urban legend, the story has been around since at least the early 1990s and mostly involves the theft of one or both of the victims kidneys.[3] According to American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, it's possible that the story originated due to a news story wherein a Turkish man, Ahmet Koc, claimed to have had his kidney stolen at a hospital but had in fact sold his kidney and was unhappy at the amount of money he'd been paid.[4][5]

There is certainly a worldwide organ trafficking issue, but actual organ theft is highly unlikely. American skeptical investigator Benjamin Radford notes that organ transplantation is extremely complicated, requires specific matches coupled with fairly tight time frames, and highly specialized medical training.[5] As such, Radford wrote that common variations on the legend where either a lone traveler is drugged or otherwise subdued or where a child is kidnapped and harvested against their will are simply not possible scenarios for such theft to occur.[6]

Credible occurrences[edit]

There are some cases that have been proven or are at least strongly suspected to be real occurrences. They generally occur in institutional settings with the systems and expertise available for the transplantation of the organ to occur.


According to reports, there are more organ donations than there are official donors and it's suspected that prisoners of conscience are making up the difference against their will.[7] The U.S. House of Representatives and the European Parliament have passed resolutions condemning the practice.[8]

The allegations are strongly supported by a 2017 report.[9] The report itself is an update to two separate works of investigative journalism:

  • The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem, written by Ethan Gutmann[10]
  • Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs, written by David Matas and David Kilgour[11]

On June 17, 2019, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal looking into the accusations of forced organ harvesting in China, released their final report and judgement.[12] The tribunal in part determined that:

"The Tribunal’s members are certain – unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt – that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims."[12]

As a result of the tribunal's report and China previously admitting to harvesting organs (although they claimed to have ceased the practice in 2015[13]) several prominent journals are instituting stronger controls to ensure that papers produced on organ transplantation only use voluntarily obtained organs.[14]


The multi-billion rupee Gurgaon kidney scandal came to light in January 2008 when police arrested several people for running a kidney transplant racket in Gurgaon,[15] an industrial township near New Delhi, India. Kidneys from most of the victims, who were poor people from the nearby Uttar Pradesh,[15] were transplanted into clients from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Greece. The police raid was prompted by complaints by the locals from Moradabad about illegal kidney sales.[16] The man accused of the scandal, Amit Kumar, was arrested in Nepal on 7 February 2008 and has denied any hand in criminal activity.[17] According to the Gurgaon police, the scandal at a local clinic was going on for six to seven years. The donors were lured with offerings of about Rs. 30,000 for kidney removal.[18] First, they were lured to the clinic on the pretext of job opportunities. They were instead asked for donating their kidneys for the fee and all those who resisted were drugged against their will and subsequently operated upon.[19]


Organ theft in Kosovo has been widely reported.[20][21][22]

  • During and after the 1999 war, accusations were made of people being killed in order to remove their organs to sell them on the black market. Various sources estimated that the number of victims ranged from a "handful",[23] up to 50,[24] between 24 to 100[25] to over 300.[26] The victims were believed to be of Serbian nationality, killed by perpetrators with strong links to the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) in 1999. Claims were investigated first by the ICTY, who found medical equipment and traces of blood in and around the house.[20] They were then investigated by the UN, who received witness reports from many ex-UÇK fighters who stated that several of the prisoners had their organs removed.[27]
  • In 2010, a report by Swiss prosecutor Dick Marty to the Council of Europe (CoE) uncovered "credible, convergent indications"[28] of an illegal trade in human organs going back over a decade,[29] including the deaths of a "handful" of Serb captives killed for this purpose.[29] On 25 January 2011, the report was endorsed by the CoE, which called for a full and serious investigation. Since the issuance of the report, however, senior sources in the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) and many members of the European Parliament have expressed serious doubts regarding the report and its foundations, believing Marty failed to provide "any evidence" concerning the allegations.[30] A EULEX special investigation was launched in August 2011.
  • Responding to this allegation, the head of the war crimes unit of Eulex (the European Law and Justice Mission in Kosovo), Matti Raatikainen, claimed "The fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever in this case, no bodies. No witnesses. All the reports and media attention to this issue have not been helpful to us. In fact they have not been helpful to anyone."[31] He described these allegations as a "distraction" that prevented the war crimes unit from finding the remains of close to 2,000 individuals of Serb, Albanian, and Roma ethnicity still missing in the conflict.


In 2020, a group of developer develop a game named Fragile, based on a real case of organ theft and human trafficking in the republic of Mongolia.[32][33]

Organ prices[edit]

List of average organ prices on the black market.

Organ Black market price (2018 USD) Reference
Pancreas $115000 – $147000 [34]
Lung $157000 – $305000 [34]
Kidney $53000 – $126000 [34]
Liver $104000 – $153000 [34]
Heart $136000 – $305000 [34]

In science fiction[edit]

Organ theft is a common trope in science fiction, being popularized by the Known Space universe created by Larry Niven, where it is called "organlegging", a portmanteau of "organ" and "bootlegging".[2] Due to organ transplantation becoming safe and universally effective, a huge potential black market in body parts was able to be exploited by murderous racketeers.[2]

Literary critic John Kenneth Muir cited the Vidiians, from TV series Star Trek: Voyager, as an example of the prevalence of organ harvesting story arcs in science fiction, comparing them to similar ideas explored in earlier British television shows such as UFO, Space: 1999, and in the episode Powerplay in the third series of Blake's 7. He speculated that there may be a connection between these science fiction storylines and the spread of organ trafficking urban legends.[35]: 107  Other academics have made similar observations that the Vidiians and other science fiction depictions of organ harvesting have the potential to adversely influence public knowledge and perceptions of scientific issues, including genetics and organ donation.[36][37] Clarence Spiger and colleagues, in a study of student perceptions of organ donations, highlighted the Vidiians as an example of a problematic source of information about the topic on television, a medium which many participants had identified as a key source for their understanding. "We can only speculate", they wrote, "that students' responses could have been indirectly or subconsciously influenced through the viewing of such programming."[36] Emily Russell, in exploring the way embalming and other techniques are used to make death appear lifelike, notes that "the conceptual groundwork is laid for organ transfer as the 'gift of life' [and thus] organ 'harvesting' then becomes not the dystopic vision of science fiction, but a celebrated and natural transfer of life from death."[38]: 80 

See also[edit]

  • Coma, 1977 novel by Robin Cook
  • Coma, 1978 film, based on the aforementioned novel
  • Fleisch, a 1979 German made-for-television film in which a newly married man is abducted by organ traffickers in the American Southwest
  • Death Warrant, 1990 film, where a murder mystery involves organ theft where healthy prison inmates are murdered for healthy organs
  • Charlie the Unicorn, a 2005 short viral video
  • Turistas, a 2006 American horror film, in which the main characters who are tourists are abducted in the Brazilian countryside for purposes of organ theft
  • Snakehead, a 2007 Alex Rider novel in which the title character is kidnapped and sent to a facility for organ theft in the South East Asian jungle
  • Pound of Flesh, a 2015 film in which a former commando falls prey to organ thieves.


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  17. ^ "I have done nothing wrong: Kingpin". Archived from the original on 2008-02-11. Retrieved 2008-02-08.
  18. ^ Hafeez, Mateen. "Kidney racket: Women did con job for Amit Kumar". The Times of India. Archived from the original on 2012-10-19. Retrieved 2008-01-08.
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  20. ^ a b Chuck Sudetic, Carla Del Ponte, La caccia: Io e i criminali di guerra, Feltrinelli, Milano, (2008), ISBN 88-07-17144-9
  21. ^ Archived 2017-11-17 at the Wayback Machine |newspaper=Balkan Insight |date=14 December 2010
  22. ^ "United Nations Document" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-04-03. Retrieved 2014-12-19.
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  30. ^ Politician angers MEPs over Kosovo organ harvesting claim Archived 2012-10-23 at the Wayback Machine (The Irish Times)
  31. ^ "End of the road for Kosovo Organ Claims?". BBC. 27 May 2010. Archived from the original on 21 April 2019. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  32. ^ "The girl was abducted and abused by an organ trafficking group. The real incident is adapted from the horror game "Fragile"". iNews.
  33. ^ "Fragile". Adventure Gamers.
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  35. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (2006). "Powerplay". A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, the 1978–1981 British Television Space Adventure. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company. p. 106-108. ISBN 9780786426607.
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