Originally published in Wired.
Is the human body sacred? Or is it a commodity ready to be chopped up and exposed to the forces of supply and demand? The answer is a matter of perspective. Our own body is a temple. But when we need a spare part, suddenly we’re surprisingly open to a transaction. To a person looking for a kidney, a scientist trying to learn anatomy, a beauty parlor customer looking for the perfect ‘do, there’s no substitute for a piece of someone else.
The problem is, demand for replacement flesh grossly outstrips supply. In the US and like-minded countries, it’s illegal to sell body parts—they can be taken only from those who filled out a donor card before they died or who are willing to give up an organ out of sheer benevolence. This means there isn’t enough tissue to go around. So, as with any outlawed or heavily regulated resource, a bustling underground trade has formed.
Sometimes the market in body parts is exploitive: Desperate people are paid tiny sums for huge donations. Other times it is ghoulish: Pieces are stolen from the recently dead. And every so often, the resource grab is lethal—people are simply killed for their organs. Welcome to the red market.