Award recognizes impact of anthropologist’s work on human organs trade

*This post was originally published on UC Berkeley’s News Center and has been reposted here with the author’s permission.

Guest post by Kathleen Maclay

UC Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes is shown here talking with Alberty Alfonso da Silva in the Recife, Brazil, slum he called home before and after being transported to South Africa to sell his kidney to a recipient flown there from New York City. Photo by John Maier.

UC Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has been honored by the American Anthropological Association with its first ever Anthropology in Public Policy Award for her trailblazing work shedding light on the dark practice of human organ trafficking.

The award, recognizing anthropologists whose work has had a significant and positive influence on government decision-making, was announced at a recent American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago.
In 1999, Scheper-Hughes, director of UC Berkeley’s medical anthropology program, helped found the Berkeley Organs Watch project. It monitors the organ-transplant trade for abuses among the transnational networks that connect patients, transplant surgeons, brokers, medical facilities and live donors, who often live in the poorest parts of the world.

“When I began the Organs Watch project, it was heretical to suggest that human trafficking for organs was not just a hyperbolic metaphor of human exploitation, but was actually happening in many parts of the world,” Scheper-Hughes said in her acceptance remarks.

But the project generated international headlines, particularly as Scheper-Hughes has called for more accountability from the medical profession in the field of medical anthropology. She also has been asked to testify before national and international governmental and medical panels, and has helped law enforcement agencies uncover illicit organs trafficking around the globe.

In recent years, Scheper-Hughes has advised the European Union, the United Nations and the Human Trafficking Office of the World Health Organization. She has also testified before Congress, the Council of Europe and the British House of Lords. In addition, she has consulted on several documentary as well as commercial films exploring organ trafficking.

In accepting the award, the self-proclaimed “agent provocateur” acknowledged that the complex social issues that anthropologists explore often have no single, simple solution, and one answer can prompt a new problem.

“So, yes,” Scheper-Hughes said in her speech, “I did help interrupt kidney trafficking in Moldova, only to have the international brokers use my Organs Watch web site … to set up a robust scheme in illicit transplants using Afro-Brazilian men from the slums of Recife to service Israeli and European transplant tourists to South African hospitals … And, yes, I contributed to the ban on the use of executed prisoners in China as organ suppliers, only to learn that new organ suppliers could be found in China among rural village girls and Vietnamese immigrants.”

Scheper-Hughes said agent provocateurs must continue “to put their bodies, as well as their words, on the line, and work on behalf of communities and populations under siege…”

For more information:

A 2004 story on the UC Berkeley NewsCenter reported on Scheper-Hughes’ transplant investigations in South America and Africa.

A 2007 story posted by UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin America recounted a presentation by Scheper-Hughes on the “medically disappeared” of Argentina during that country’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s and ‘80s.

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