Our bodies, our right?

The world let out a little gasp yesterday when BBC News revealed that a 17 year old teenager in China had sold a kidney in order to buy himself an iPad 2. But amidst the controversy, it is hard to know what people find more shocking – that the illicit organ trading system is still prevalent there, or that ‘Little Zheng’ chose to spend his earnings on gadgets.

Several years ago, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on illegal organ trafficking. In 2009, only 10,000 transplants were carried out, in spite of a staggering 1.5 million citizens reported as being in need of them. This huge deficit sparked a notorious underground trading system whereby organs would be exchanged on the black market. It is clear to see that in the case of ‘Little Zheng,’ this governmental action has been nowhere near as effective as hoped.

Further calls for reforming the existing system in the country came after the admission that 65% of organs used in transplants were taken from Death Row prisoners. The authorities created a voluntary donation scheme in 2007, hoping that this would encourage the public to donate their organs and slowly reduce the amount of trafficking, but illegal incidents are still being reported with a fair degree of frequency.

In one sense, ‘Little Zheng’s’ transaction can be seen as rather nifty. At 17, he decided he wanted the latest technological toy, valuing Steve Jobs’ latest creation as more desirable than a vital organ. Well, boys will be boys. At least he didn’t rob a bank. But he may regret opting for a transplant-trade-off years down the line instead of just waiting tables and saving up like a regular teen.

What is perhaps most alarming is not this seemingly irrational decision, but rather the ease with which the opportunity was presented to him. ‘Little Zheng’ told the press that a broker contacted him online, promising a handsome sum in return for an organ valued at $62,000 in China four years ago. After receiving a payout of $3,392, maybe the youngster isn’t quite as nifty as we thought.

No details have yet been released regarding any kind of excuse this organ trader offered his mother for vanishing for three days whilst the transplant was carried out in another province. Upon returning with both the iPad 2 and a laptop, she was immediately suspicious, and upon seeing the red surgical scar on his body, telephoned the police. No leads have yet been discovered, reaffirming that the underground organ trade in China is as prominent and yet untraceable as ever.

People have understandably been shocked by the actions of this youngster, who put his life at risk just to purchase a couple of high-tech contraptions. But this stirs up the age old question of whether or not we are truly free to do as we please with our own bodies. This debate is usually associated with supporters of the pro-choice campaign, but this story has added a new dimension to the argument. If we want something and have the means of procuring it by using our natural assets, why shouldn’t we?

Of course, this line of reasoning opens up several cans of worms, namely that it would in some way legitimise the illicit practices of prostitution and other highly dangerous activities. And yet glamour models who expose themselves for money or people who sell their hair are reaping the rewards that their bodies can afford them, so why shouldn’t ‘Little Zheng’? The fact that he chose to spend his earnings on expensive toys demonstrates that perhaps this case doesn’t emulate the seriousness of certain situations that drive some people to sell themselves – or parts of themselves – but ultimately, the hugely mixed messages we receive from the government about the moral acceptability of trading our bodies makes it difficult to condemn his actions.

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