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Author Scott Carney discusses ‘The Red Market’

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.


Last Wednesday night multiple Brandeis groups ranging from the Department of Sociology, the Center for Ethics and the Student Union sponsored a lecture given by Scott Carney, a freelance investigative journalist who recently penned the book “The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers.” With a title like that, it is hard not to be interested in Carney’s gruesome-yet-fascinating topic.

Carney’s book and many of his more recent journalism articles center on the theme of the “Red Market,” markets that emerge when we “commercialize the human body.” Organ selling is a billion-dollar industry. Carney spent six years researching these underground, trans-border dealings, investigating the dark side of the human supply chain. He described for instance, how human flesh moves up, not down the social hierarchy, mainly from the third to the first world; one does not hear of people in the United States donating their organs to a peasant in India.

Carney also dives into ethics, stating there are two sides to every story. Many people want to believe the body is sacred, that our personhood is above the market, that we are special. Yet, the flipside is, if we were dying in the hospital and desperately needed a kidney transplant, we would really want that kidney. Carney raised other interesting questions: Would you still be you without an organ? Can you cut away yourself? The argument Carney seems to be making is that technology is outracing our ethics. While medicine and science are advancing rapidly, our ethics in regard to the human body seem to be lacking. The book itself covers 10 markets for bodies or body parts. Since Carney’s lecture was slightly time limited, he was only able to describe some particulars of the business of human flesh. Yet, what he did share was alarmingly fascinating, like watching a car crash, at once terrible but also impossible to stop paying attention to.

There are indeed horror stories. Calcutta, for instance, used to be the primary exporter of human skeletons for medical schools. Up to 60,000 skeletons were being exported per year, until a case broke out of a man selling such a high number of child skeletons (which sell for more money) that it was in no way possible he was acquiring them in any way other than murder. Yet, the trade in Calcutta exists to this day. India is a popular location for people who need kidney transplants: Instead of waiting up to 10 years in the United States for a kidney, it is available in a month in India at a much-reduced cost. This inspires people to kidnap passersby on the street, take out their kidneys and sell them on the market. China is even worse, often executing political prisoners on demand if someone requests a kidney. Indeed, all political prisoners are blood-typed upon entering prison, in case the need presents itself. Carney even insists there is such a thing as execution by organ donation. The cause of all these horrors is dehumanization. Humans become mere commodities and it no longer matters if they feel any pain.

Carney personally got interested in this topic mainly because he was broke. A graduate student trying to get his PhD studying Bollywood music, he soon found he could not pay the rent. So he signed up for a clinical trial, where he got paid $2,500 to take erectile dysfunction medication. While “hopped up on Viagra” he became interested in the other people who signed up for the clinical trial. Some were prisoners hoping to make some money, but others were professional guinea pigs, traveling cross country and making up to $60,000 a year by participating in clinical trials. Carney began to question if a clinical trial is a job, is metabolizing something equal to working? His interest soon lead him to research, and he learned that it is much easier to move clinical trials across the border, where making a drug there could save a third to two-thirds of the cost. Clinical trials coupled with worse health regulations in other countries leads to social side effects, namely human deaths. Soon Carney found himself invested in all aspects of the human body, including organ harvesting, hair, illegal adoption, surrogate mothers, egg harvesting and selling of skeletons among other things.
Carney himself is a humble, funny man, who is so down to earth it is easy to forget he won the prestigious Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism in 2010.

Carney is also a senior fellow at Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. This institute was the first investigative reporting center stationed at a university and is an independent reporting center allowing academic freedom for its reporters. For Carney, The Schuster Institute is a sort of “intellectual home base.”

Maybe due to his affiliation with Brandeis, or merely because of his journalistic skill, the turnout to see the Carney lecture was high by Brandeis standards. Questions asked by Brandeis students after the lecture were highly informed, indicating most students were riveted enough to pay very close attention. Carney is an excellent public speaker. He pauses for emphasis, speaks with convincing hand motions and his jokes were sometimes met with such laughter he was forced to stop the lecture for a moment. In a section where he read a piece of the book out loud, it was instantly clear he is as good a speaker as a writer. The words on the page, already lively and not at all just stating facts, came to life and became entirely relatable. His personable character makes it easy to understand how he could weasel his way into getting information out of the strangest people, from criminals to government mongrels.

A book signing following the question-and-answer only served to point to Carney’s sense of humor. He signed my book: “You have beautiful kidneys. Don’t undersell them.” While Carney may be discussing and investigating dark topics involving death and murder, his way of conveying such material is so entirely interesting that it sways people over to his cause.