American vampire

Posted: Apr 25, 2006 5:05 PM

Two years ago, The New York Times ran a story about a 48-year-old Brooklyn woman who, facing death after years of dialysis treatments and failing health, received a kidney from a Brazilian peasant who was paid $6,000 for the organ. The chilling story bared the human misery that surrounds the black market on human parts. Some donors faced ill health and even (unlike the recipients) prosecution. The kidney recipient talked to the Times reporter, but felt enough shame that she did not want her name in the newspaper.

 Last week, The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story by reporter Vanessa Hua about a San Mateo, Calif., man who flew to Shanghai and paid $110,000 for a liver -- with nary a thought about human-rights activists' contention that China has executed prisoners in order to harvest their organs. Not only was Eric De Leon's name in the paper, he even has a blog about his Shanghai transplant. The man clearly is not ashamed.

 Last year, the Chinese deputy health minister admitted, as he promised reform, that the organs of executed prisoners were sold to foreigners. This month, the South China Morning Post reported that a leading Chinese transplant surgeon estimated that more than 99 percent of transplanted organs in China came from executed prisoners.

 Did De Leon, 51, try to find out who the 20-year-old liver donor was, or if the donor was an executed prisoner? "Not really," he said when I called him Monday. He claimed he wasn't aware of the controversy until he arrived in China.

 Besides, China's "not the only country" to engage in questionable organ-transplant practices. Meanwhile, his blog informs readers that in China "the No. 1 crime punishable by death, and the most common crime committed, is drug smuggling" -- besides, donors have to consent. (De Leon probably didn't check out Amnesty International's report that in China, a person can be sentenced to death for tax fraud or embezzlement.)

 Anyway, he said, "they weren't executed for me. It could have been a car accident." And if, by some twist of fate I had cancer and needed a healthy liver, "let's see how fast you're in line," he said.

 What a country. If affluent people want a body part and have cash, they can get the organ abroad -- from a dead prisoner or a live peasant. You see, De Leon tells me, he has family obligations.

 Americans aren't the only offenders in this tale. According to news reports, Koreans, Japanese and Israelis also have gone to China for organ transplants.

 Maybe they look at other inequities in the world and figure one more inequity won't make a difference. Maybe they convince themselves that they are so special they have a right to an operation that they know could cost another man his life. Besides, they didn't create a world in which the rich get better health care.

 Black-market organ recipients, however, now are changing the world. Today, you don't have to be filthy rich -- just affluent -- to buy someone else's vital organs. (De Leon is a construction superintendent.)

 In this brave new world, the recipient of an organ of dubious origin need not hide or feel shame. De Leon and his wife are online, trading tips on Chinese transplants. They're clearly not afraid that neighbors will shun them for their moral depravity, or that the parents of their children's friends will be appalled. If anything, they act as if they feel empowered.

 Ditto Daniel Farley of Sebastopol, Calif., who also had a liver transplant in Shanghai. "I'm a fairly liberal guy, and it's not the greatest thing to think about," Farley told The Chronicle. "But when you're faced with a certainty -- and (the donors) have a certainty -- it's easier to take. Either someone was sentenced to die or it was their time."

 I could make a gratuitous crack about liberalism, but I won't because I have no doubt that some conservatives have engaged in the same body-parts snatching. When utilitarianism becomes a substitute for right and wrong, the end result is a lot more wrong.

 Or as the De Leons blogged, "You and I have no right and are in no position to know and/or judge China's judicial system." In De Leon's America, you don't judge, you use other people's parts.

 Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that it is "important that people condemn the practice -- church groups, doctors." He likened the China transplant story to "the Titanic syndrome. I'm shoving those women and children out of the way and getting onto that lifeboat."

 Human-rights activist Harry Wu, founder of the China Information Center in Virginia, sees a double-standard. Folks here accept a Californian going to China for organs, but what if De Leon came to San Francisco for a liver from someone's father or brother? Wu asked. What would Bay Area folk think then?