It is the stuff of horror movies and science-fiction novels: human body parts harvested, bought and sold on an open market. In recent years, this scenario has emerged from the depths of our nightmares to find its way into reality. Although many stories of organ thefts and “body stealing” have been debunked as urban legend, it is a problem that not only exists, but is of growing concern to many people.

Mark Crutcher is the founder and president of Life Dynamics. His organization exposes companies and individuals who harvest tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research purposes. “Nothing is being done, and nothing’s going to be done” about fetal tissue trading, Crutcher told The Interim.

“In the United States,” Crutcher explained, “we have a very corrupt political system that ignores this problem. They claimed, when they wrote the laws originally, that they put safeguards in there so that there wouldn’t be trafficking in the parts. In reality, what they did was placate people by putting these ‘safeguards’ into place, but then they put loopholes in these safeguards that are big enough to fly a 747 through. The problem is, the Democratic party is in bed with the people who sell the parts: the abortion clinics. The Republican party is in bed with the people who buy them: the pharmaceutical companies, the research universities, the biotech companies. Those political entities have a vested self-interest in seeing that (fetal tissue trading) continues. It’s a conspiracy of a common agenda.”

Aborted babies aren’t the only victims of this macabre, but growing, market. Increasingly, poor people in Third World countries are becoming organ and tissue banks for a Western medical establishment that is strapped for raw materials. Nancy Scheper-Hughes is the director of Organs Watch, an organization that documents and investigates allegations of organ sales for transplant surgery. In a paper entitled “Global Traffic In Human Organs,” published in the journal Current Anthropology in April of 2000, she cited “the deficiencies of the global capitalist economy, particularly the erosion of social values and social cohesion in the face of the increasing dominance of anti-social market values” as factors driving people to sell their own organs.

Scheper-Hughes continued: “The problem is that markets are by nature indiscriminate and inclined to reduce everything – including human beings, their labour, and their reproductive capacity – to the status of commodities … Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the current markets for human organs and tissues to supply a medical business driven by supply and demand.”

An example of this phenomenon came out of Uganda’s Sunday Monitor on June 20, 2004. On that day, police in the capital city of Kampala confirmed that they were investigating a “well-organized racket” involved in exporting human body parts to the United States and Europe. The racketeers’ defence to these grisly allegations: they are cannibals.

“There is no law in Uganda under which one can be charged with cannibalism,” Sunday Monitor journalist David Kibirige wrote. “Surprisingly, people in Mityana told police that the home of the suspected cannibals used to be frequented by posh cars.” Kibirige also points out that the victims’ bodies were missing vital organs, prompting police to believe the cannibalism story is a “cover-up.”

More disturbing than the markets for medical research and transplant surgery is a growing market catering to idle curiosity seekers.

On July 28, 2004, according to The Moscow News, a court in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk acquitted Vladimir Novoselov, the head of the Novosibirsk regional bureau of forensic medicine, of charges of illegally transporting dead bodies to Germany. It is alleged he was supplying “artist’s materials” to Gunther Von Hagen. Von Hagen, through a process called “plastination,” preserves bodies and body parts, places them in poses – one of the most widely photographed being a skinless corpse playing basketball – and places them in museums as installation pieces.

If people can hide behind the laws of other countries to justify the commodification of the very organs that keep us alive, and even our own laws are not sufficient to protect the most vulnerable of us, one is left to ask who is truly safe from the “global free market” of this gruesome trade.