Organ harvesting and trading

In his encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis highlights the related practices of slavery, trafficking in person, women subjugated and forced to abort and kidnapping for organ harvesting or organ trafficking. He notes that, whether by coercion, deception, or by physical or psychological duress, human persons, created in the image and likeness of God, are deprived of their freedom, sold, and reduced to being another person’s property.

The Protocol on Trafficking, attached to the UN Convention Against Organized Crime, signed by nearly every country in the world, condemned trafficking sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery and the removal of organs. The Protocol, in Article 3 (b), emphasised that the consent of a person is irrelevant when any of the defining characteristics are present. Organ harvesting involves the trafficking of humans to sell their organs for money. It is a cruel and barbaric crime against humanity. Organ harvesting is inhumane and deprives innocent people of their fundamental right to life.

Why does organ harvesting still happen?

Nearly 25 years after the ratification of the Protocol it is time to look back and ask why inhuman illicit organ harvesting markets still thrive. Organ trafficking is widespread. Human organs have become a very highly-priced commodity which the wealthy, taking advantage of the poor, obtain by different immoral means. There are many factors that encourage and promote it.


Organ trafficking is widespread. Human organs have become a very highly-priced commodity which the wealthy, taking advantage of the poor, obtain by different immoral means.

Residents of poor communities become victims of organ trafficking due to abject poverty present in their neighbourhoods. Those involved promote the idea that, through the sale of their organs, poor individuals will be enriched. Selling an organ can be seen as a quick way out of debt or poverty.


Organ trafficking is generally (though not always) an illegal act. However, corruption at government level, and in the police, leads to non-enforcement.  In addition, the corruption of the doctors who perform the surgeries also promotes the spread of the illicit trade.

Absence of information and awareness:

Victims of organ harvesting do not have access to adequate information on the risk of their organs being harvested, nor are they aware of the high cost of the maintenance drugs. The perpetrators tell victims that sufficient money will be given to them to meet their post-operation care and other basic needs of life. In fact, there is often no follow-up care or efforts to prevent infection after the operation. These problems allow organised crime networks to prey on the most vulnerable.


The problem is often related to human trafficking in that victims can be kidnapped and taken into slavery and their organs harvested.


Developments in the field of medicine mean that more organ transplants can be carried out on more patients than ever before. This results in increased demand for organs. In many countries, supply does not match demand. This shortage leads desperate people to seek alternatives from the black market. But the experience can be terrible for people donating organs through the black market. Operations can be done badly and victims endure pain. Indeed, their lives can be threatened due to the lack of medical attention and poor conditions during the transplants. Some victims have been admitted to hospitals for sickness and then have had their organs removed without their consent.

Debt bondage:

In some neighbourhoods, money lenders would accept the kidney of their debtor as collateral. If the debtor defaults on the loan, the money lender would request that the kidney of their debtors be harvested to pay back the sum which may still be less than the total debt incurred: thus the cycle of debt continues.

Traditional practices:

The extraction of organs and parts of the human body is also linked to traditional practices, magic and cultural beliefs. In some neighbourhoods or cultures, there is a belief that holds that organs or parts of the human body, when treated by “traditional healers”, provide luck or wealth or cure certain diseases. The socio-economic situation in some neighbourhoods or countries has driven the citizens toward healers who practice witchcraft: they believe the healers not only can restore people to health but can help people get basic necessities or even riches. The sorcerer performs rituals and tells them that in order to have better living conditions, or to obtain what the individual is asking for, the individual needs to bring a human head, hand, tongue, or particular part of the body. And, if people believe this, they may kill someone in order to obtain the body part. The unfortunate victims of these attacks are often migrants coming in from outside the communities or from other countries and who are regarded as a “disfavoured class”. Those involved in sorcery and witchcraft are also very well organised and leave little evidence for investigators to follow.

The way forward

The factors leading to high levels of organ trafficking and harvesting are complex and inter-related. They are also at the root of many other problems that lead to poor outcomes in many countries. To combat trafficking in people, organs, and parts of the human body, governments and NGOs need to promote better governance that lead to lower levels of poverty and more stable employment for the population. In addition, in relation to organ trafficking and harvesting specifically, the following needs to be done, also supported by government and NGOs:

  1. Awareness campaigns: Trafficking should form part of the teacher training curriculum to help teachers combat trafficking in people, organs and parts of the human body. Teachers can then be the disseminators of this information in the classrooms.
  2. School campaigns: Related to teacher training initiatives, government and other organisations, including the Church, should promote public lectures through the media and in schools with the aim of preventing and combating trafficking for organ harvesting.
  3. Public information materials: Public information materials should be made available on the topic of trafficking in people, organs and parts of the human body. This should have the purpose of deepening and expanding knowledge about the phenomenon, enabling the adoption of measures to combat trafficking and organ harvesting. Such information needs to be available in the most widely spoken languages.

Of course, effective measures to deal with trafficking and organ harvesting will vary from country to country. Although root causes, such as poverty and corruption, need to be tackled, we cannot simply wait for that to happen. Specific measures targeted at organ harvesting are necessary. People are traumatized by the experience of having their organ harvested. They are often not extracted with the victim’s consent. Where consent is given, it is not freely given, as victims feel forced by their circumstances to allow their organs to be harvested. The victims are people in a very precarious situation and may be marked by social exclusion. The government, through the adoption of appropriate policies, and the institutions of justice should work to eliminate trafficking and the associated phenomenon of organ harvesting. They should also assist the victims of trafficking with psychiatric help, as well as medical, sanitary and other material help whilst assisting them in maintaining contact with their families so that they can, ultimately, be reintegrated into their communities.

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Author: Mark Odion

Published: 9th May 2023

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020