On the night of Jan. 21, Turkish police officers burst into a villa in Istanbul’s Asian quarter and arrested a 53-year-old transplant surgeon named Yusuf Sonmez. Interpol had been looking for Sonmez since 2008, when a Turkish man collapsed in the airport in Pristina, Kosovo, and reported that his kidney had been stolen. The incident led to an investigation by European Union prosecutors, who uncovered an international organ-stealing and smuggling ring of alarming scope. Sonmez and eight co-conspirators, prosecutors alleged in December, had lured poor people from Central Asia and Europe to Pristina, harvested their organs, and sold them at up to $100,000 a pop to medical tourists from Canada, Germany, Israel, and Poland. The clinic where Sonmez did his work, a separate report by the Council of Europe alleged, was part of an even vaster organ-smuggling network — one which, incredibly, even involved Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci.
The trafficking operation was gristly, but hardly unusual. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 10 percent of the world’s organ transplants originate on the black market; as a rule of thumb, that figure seems to hold true across the trade in human body parts. And while occasional law enforcement successes like Sonmez’s arrest do happen, for the most part no one is really seriously attempting to shut down a market that is not just lucrative, but, many would argue, inevitable.
It would be an understatement to say that the last century has been a golden age for medical science. The average human lifespan today is almost a 30 years longer than it was in 1900. We’ve seen the advent of once-unthinkable innovations such as antibiotics, blood transfusions, and the surgical wizardry of organ transplants. These once-miraculous feats depend on a supply infrastructure that those of us outside of the medical profession rarely think about. We take it for granted that if we get into a car accident that the local hospital will have blood on hand for a life-saving transfusion. If our kidneys fail, we expect a spot on the transplant list. If we are infertile, we expect to have access to someone else’s sperm or eggs, or — if we can afford it — the services of a surrogate mother to bring a child to term. . . .