An Asian couple from Los Angeles with adopted African children are on trial in Qatar, accused of starving their daughter Gloria to death in order to sell her organs.

According to an article in The New York Times:

“Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple with three adopted children from Africa, lived as a family in the affluent Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar starting in July 2012. For most of the time since then, the parents have been imprisoned there, accused of starving their 8-year-old daughter to death with the intent of selling her organs…. The Qatar police investigators, in their report of Gloria’s death, found the family’s circumstances highly suspicious, and wrote that the girl had been emaciated. The defendants, they concluded in an investigation, ‘participated with others in child trafficking, most likely to either sell their organs or to conduct medical experiments on them.’”

The couple was freed last week on bail.

VIDEO: How Organ Recipients Are Chosen

This claim and situation is bizarre, it’s not unheard of. Folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent, one of the world’s top authorities on the subject, notes in her book “Organ Theft Legends” that in some versions of this urban legend “the scenario is of pseudo-adoptions, in which children left poor countries only to die upon operating tables, not to be welcomed into loving families; it is commonly referred to as the Baby Parts Story, since organs taken from these children were allegedly used as ‘spare parts’ in transplants.”

Indeed, the prosecutor’s accusations against the Huangs fits this narrative perfectly: A wealthy American couple adopts children from the poor West African country of Ghana only to kill one of them for her organs. Cultural misunderstandings may have played a role in the accusations; mixed-race families and adoptions are virtually unknown in Qatar.

One does not need to be a medical expert or a folklorist to see why at least some of the charges against the Huangs are absurd on their face. The couple may or may not be culpable for their daughter’s starvation death (Gloria had been raised severely malnourished and treated for both intestinal parasites and an anorexia-like eating disorder), but the claim that she was murdered so that her parents could harvest and sell her organs is clearly groundless.

By starving their daughter to death they would be damaging the very organs they are supposedly trying to sell. Starvation can lead to failure of the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart  and other vital organs. If some evil person truly wanted to take little Gloria’s organs, her death would have been quick and done under medical supervision so that the organs could be retrieved immediately. In the hours between the time the Huangs discovered their daughter in her room on Jan. 15 and the time she later died at a hospital, most of her organs would have become unusable.

Though organ sales do occur, there is no evidence of an organized black market in stolen organs, and in fact it would be nearly impossible to conceal an entire organ-snatching ring.

Sophisticated medical equipment must be used, and donors and recipients must be carefully matched. Blood and tissue typing must be done in advance. The operation would take between four and six hours and involve 10 to 20 support staff. Highly paid surgeons and medical staff are unlikely to risk performing such unethical and illegal operations, thus jeopardizing both their licenses and their reputations.

PHOTOS: World’s Worst Prisons

Still, such claims and rumors surface now and then. In May of this year, a British family on vacation in India accused workers in a clinic there of killing their 8-year-old daughter, Gurkiren Kaur Loyal, so that her organs could be harvested.

Dangers of Legends

Like most urban legends, the “baby parts” story doesn’t need to be true for it to have very real — and potentially dangerous — consequences. Organ donations have dropped in some areas where the rumors spread. In many poor areas, such as in the slums surrounding Brazil’s major cities including Rio de Janiero, residents avoid hospitals out of fear that their organs may be taken if they are sedated. The results can be tragic since the poor are frequently those who need medical services the most.

Historically these organ theft accusations have often been leveled for political reasons. Investigator Todd Leventhal of the U.S. Information Agency (part of the State Department) noted in a 1988 report that during the Cold War the Russian intelligence agency KGB actively encouraged and circulated rumors about Americans abducting and killing children for their organs. As Campion-Vincent notes, “If any undeniable facts about organ thefts were established, they would become a major news item. They would be treated as such, making the front page of the daily papers and the lead item on the TV news.”

Still, two Americans are on trial based at least in part upon what is clearly a myth.

Last week a judge released the Huangs pending trial, but they are not allowed to leave the country. Their next scheduled hearing is Dec. 3.