People Are Selling Their Organs on Facebook

We already know it’s easy to buy and sell guns on Facebook, but the social network’s not-so-hidden black markets get a lot more gory than teens trading firearms. According to an investigation by a British newspaper, people are using Facebook to buy and...

This story came from Motherboard, our tech website. Read more at Motherboard.tv. Photo via Flickr user North Dakota National Guard 

We already know it’s really easy to buy and sell guns on Facebook, but the social network’s not-so-hidden black markets get a lot more gory than teens trading firearms. According to an investigation by British newspaper the Sunday Post, people are using Facebook to buy and sell another rather sensitive product: human organs.

A reporter from the paper posed as the brother of a woman in need of a kidney transplant and put up an ad in a Facebook group set up to facilitate the buying and selling of human body parts. With an apparently thriving Facebook of Things, who needs Silk Road any more?

He received 11 offers in the course of a week, including proposals from two Brits who were asking for $33,000 or $50,000, and from people in India, Mexico, and Tanzania. “Meanwhile the site also contained recent adverts placed by desperate Britons willing to risk their lives and freedom for cash,” the reporter wrote.

In the UK, it’s illegal to buy and sell organs. People travel abroad for dodgy black-market operations to avoid being detected by the Human Tissue Authority, which has to approve every transplant from a living donor. While you might be able to live just fine with one kidney, I probably don’t have to mention the health risks of having a back-street surgeon slice you open to pluck out a vital organ in what the Sunday Post describes as “an underground industry controlled by ruthless gangs.”  

The Telegraph adds that even advertising your organs for sale is a criminal offence in the UK, so using Facebook groups like this could put you in prison, whether your internal organs are intact or not. It’s also illegal in the US and pretty much everywhere else in the world—but that hasn't stopped a $75 million global black market in organ trafficking

I did a quick search on Facebook for “buy sell organs” and came up with a group in the first page of results that last saw activity at the end of 2013. Posts ranged from jokes—“ill sell my kidney for eminem tickets”—to seemingly genuine offers of body parts, such as one from a 30-year-old Indonesian man who gave his contact details to arrange selling a kidney with the explanation, “I want money for living in world.”

Money is the clear incentive for those looking to sell, and the Sunday Post didn’t hold back from attributing its findings to poverty. The reason sales are illegal, the Human Tissue Act told the paper, was a matter of ensuring informed consent. “We need to satisfy ourselves that the donor knows the risks involved, that the donor has given consent freely, and no reward has been offered or received,” HTA chief executive Alan Clamp said. 

There’s also the matter that donors and patients need to be well-matched to make sure the transplants have the highest chance of success, and that procedures are highly regulated to check everything’s in order. While we might prefer to take an organ from people who we think are more like us, basing a life-changing operation on someone’s Facebook selfies probably isn’t the best idea.

That’s not to say social networking can’t play a positive role in the world of organ donation—when we’re actually talking about donations and not transactions. A couple of years ago, Facebook worked with the NHS to allow people to register as a donor through the website, and in some countries you can share your organ-donor status on your profile. It’s meant to be a statement of intent so your friends and family know your plans when your organs are no longer of use to you. 

There are also Facebook pages encouraging altruistic donation—you can donate a kidney when you’re alive, but it has to be done under strict regulations and without money changing hands. 

Presumably, as with guns, Facebook will aim to remove ads for human organs, as they fall under the bracket of "indicat[ing] a willingness to evade or help others evade the law.” But presumably, as with guns, such action is unlikely to have any real effect on the trade as a whole.