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New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi

Part 4. Organs for Sale

Is Transplantation Tourism a Form of Cannibal Market?

Philippe Steiner

Texte intégral

  • 1 See the general presentation of the issue in Guille-Escuret (2012).

1The word “cannibalism” was already used in reference to transplantation when the so-called Pittsburg Protocol set out to remove organs from non-heart-beating patients. Renée Fox, a sociologist who began studying transplantation in the mid-1990s, considered the protocol so aggressive—bodies brought to the operating room for organ removal just a few minutes after the heart stopped beating—that she chose the term of “cannibalism” to describe it. It was a strong claim, indeed, since cannibalism is considered to be the sheer negation of humanity. However, it is a social practice that anthropologists have found in almost every culture and civilization.1

2Medical cannibalism refers to dead bodies being harvested of any body parts fitting the needs of the living. However, neither Fox nor Guille-Escuret (2012) has considered the issue of a cannibal market.

3This section offers some insights on this topic within the current practices in transplantation, where there are distinct differences between situations involving foreigners and those involving people of the same country, tribe, or similar group. Indeed, the differences between transplant tourism and national market transplantation can be compared to the differences between exo- and endo-cannibalism.

  • 2 This idea is elaborated further in chapter 6 of Steiner 2010.

4The current policy in transplantation is to fight transplant tourism, as the Declaration of Istanbul clears in 2008. However, data collected by the European Union indicates that about one tenth of kidney transplantations involve transplant tourism. The lack of a sufficient number of organs, rising economic inequalities, and the existence of corruption in poorly state-managed countries are the main factors behind this tragic situation. Transplant tourism involves movement from one country to another. When all the cases Jacob A. Akoh describes are considered together, transplant tourism boils down to a movement of resources (the recipient and/or the vendor, and sometimes the surgeon) towards a medical isolate (a place where illegal transplantation is performed) before going back home. In this regard, it resembles the Atlantic slave trade, which also entailed the movement of resources to and from a “sugar production isolate” (plantations located on islands most of the time).2 However, if men and resources travel from country to country, so do organizations, as Rafael Matesanz demonstrates. The founding father of the famous “Spanish model” explains how it can be implemented in Latin America in order to expand the number of organs made available to the medical systems there. This is an obvious and serious way to put a stop to transplant tourism.

5Finally, Mitra Mahdavi-Mazdeh considers the flip side of the coin. Iran is the only country to have made the bold move to legalize a regulated market of living vendors—I see no reason to use euphemized words, such as “paid donors”—for kidney transplantation. This system is far from functioning in a satisfactory way, since the regulation is far from optimal, as she acknowledges; however, as long as the recipient must be an Iranian citizen, this system differs from transplant tourism and should be examined in terms of its national outcomes, notably those concerning the vendors and their financial and social fate after the selling of one part of their body.



Fox, R. C. 1993. “An ignoble form of cannibalism”: Reflections on the Pittsburgh protocol for procuring organs from non-heart-beating cadavers. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 3(2):231–239.

Guille-Escuret, G. 2012. Les mangeurs d’autres. Civilisation et cannibalisme. Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS.

Steiner, Philippe. 2010. La transplantation d’organes. Un commerce nouveau entre les êtres humains. Paris: Gallimard.


1 See the general presentation of the issue in Guille-Escuret (2012).

2 This idea is elaborated further in chapter 6 of Steiner 2010.


Professor of sociology at the Paris-Sorbonne University and senior member of the Institut universitaire de France. He has recently published La transplantation d’organes: un commerce nouveau entre les êtres humains, Paris, Gallimard, 2010; Durkheim and the Birth of Economic Sociology, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011; and Calcul et morale. Coût de l’esclavage et valeur de l’émancipation, (with C. Oudin-Bastide), Paris, Albin Michel, 2015.

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2015

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