Penn Anthropology Colloquium: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, 'Who's Got the Knife?' (2/21/2012)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - 3:30pm

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On October 27, 2011 Levy Itzhak Rosenbaum, a well-connected international transplant broker, pleaded guilty in a Trenton, NJ federal courtroom to three counts of organizing the sale and transfer of kidneys purchased from poor Israelis who were trafficked into the US to supply the needs of American transplant patients. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy. But Rosenbaum, responsible for more than a hundred illegal transplants from New York City to California, stood alone in the courtroom. With whom did the broker conspire? This lecture, based on 15 years of ethnographic and investigative research into international criminal networks of transplant trafficking , compares state and criminal justice responses in concurrent and linked prosecutions in Brazil, South Africa, Moldova, Turkey, and Kosovo. In these cases, in addition to the universally reviled ‘organs brokers’ and their assistant kidney hunters, the accused in the courtrooms have included blood technicians, hospital administrators, medical insurance executives, the kidney buyers ( recipients), translators, travel agents, nurses, safe house operators, and transplant surgeons and nurses who were charged with organized crime, human trafficking, fraud, contravening organ and tissue laws. Some served stiff prison sentences while others paid steep financial penalties in exchange for turning state’s witness . Only in South Africa, however, were transplant surgeons initially charged with ‘assault with a deadly weapon” harming the bodies of trafficked kidney sellers, some of whom were minors. Drawing on key informant interviews with the surgeons involved in these complicated transactions, I will explore the moral reasoning, defense, and the limits of responsibility and culpability of transplant surgeons who, knowingly or not, filled the role of bystander, witness, collaborator, facilitator, organizer or victim of international transplant trafficking. (My title is not an allusion to the detective game “Clue”, but to the challenge raised by a Europol detective to transplant surgeons at a UN meeting on combating the traffic in humans for organs).