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Conversations with Kidney Vendors in Pakistan: An Ethnographic Study In theory, a market for kidneys could increase the supply of organs while benefiting impoverished people. In-depth sociological work reveals a different set of realities.

The growing concern about the shortage of kidneys available for transplantation has led some physicians, economists, and bioethicists to call for monetary inducements and “regulated” organ markets as a way of expanding the number of kidneys obtained from living, unrelated individuals. In contrast, those opposed to the idea of organ sales believe that such practices lead to exploitation of the most vulnerable people in society for the benefit of the privileged. Missing from the literature is in-depth sociological work on the vendors—the men and women who opt to undergo nephrectomy for money—and the on-the-ground realities that frame their decision. Very little is known about the sociological and psychological effects on vendors and on the families and societies they belong to when faced with a situation in which the only way to address financial difficulties is to sell a kidney.

Our aim is to turn the light on those who sell kidneys. Our research provides a “thick” description of the lives of kidney vendors and their families in Pakistan, people who stand at the center of organ commerce and yet have remained largely invisible. We attempt to open a window into their lives, to capture through their narratives what it “means” to them and their families when circumstances compel them to sell a kidney, and the ways in which this act affects connected existences.

The growing concern about the shortage of kidneys available for transplantation has led some physicians, economists, and bioethicists to call for monetary inducements and “regulated” organ markets as a way of expanding the number of kidneys obtained from living, unrelated individuals. In contrast, those opposed to the idea of organ sales believe that such practices lead to exploitation of the most vulnerable people in society for the benefit of the privileged. Missing from the literature is in-depth sociological work on the vendors—the men and women who opt to undergo nephrectomy for money—and the on-the-ground realities that frame their decision. Very little is known about the sociological and psychological effects on vendors and on the families and societies they belong to when faced with a situation in which the only way to address financial difficulties is to sell a kidney.

Our aim is to turn the light on those who sell kidneys. Our research provides a “thick” description of the lives of kidney vendors and their families in Pakistan, people who stand at the center of organ commerce and yet have remained largely invisible. We attempt to open a window into their lives, to capture through their narratives what it “means” to them and their families when circumstances compel them to sell a kidney, and the ways in which this act affects connected existences.

Farhat Moazam, Riffat Moazam Zaman, and Aamir M. Jafarey, "Conversations with Kidney Vendors in Pakistan: An Ethnographic Study," Hastings Center Report 39, no. 3 (2009): 29-44.