A week or two ago when I came across a newspaper headline, "Mom Accused of Trying to Sell Girl to Organ Traffickers," I giggled. To be honest, I laughed out loud.
With a smile on my face I eagerly read the short piece:
Ukrainian police have detained a woman suspected of trying to sell her 2-year-old daughter to human organ traffickers, the Interfax news agency reported Monday. The woman, 28, was described as an unemployed resident of the village of Uspenovka, in the eastern Zaporizhia region. Police had evidence she intended to sell the toddler to human organ traffickers for $12,600, according to the report. Law enforcement officials reportedly detained her on Saturday evening, shortly after she accepted payment for the child and its organs. The baby girl was now "safe, healthy, and in the custody of a regional hospital."
The piece, from Deutsche Presse-Agentur, was reprinted in newspapers across the country, from the Albuquerque Journal to the Columbus Dispatch.
Now, don't get me wrong.
Mothers are regularly caught and convicted of horrific neglect and child abuse. Some mothers try to sell their children for sex with adults. Other moms have been accused of offering to trade their children for gas money. Just last week a mother killed her three-month-old son because he was interrupting a video game on Facebook. And mothers kill their infants and newborns at an alarming rate, about one or two per week, drowning them in toilets or leaving them to die in Dumpsters. It's no secret that mothers can be just as cruel and abusive - if not more so - toward their children than fathers.
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But selling your two-year-old daughter to someone so that they can kill her and sell her organs?
I don't believe a word of it.
In fact, I investigated an identical claim in late 2000. A grandmother was arrested for trying to sell her five-year-old grandson Andrei in exchange for $90,000. Andrei would then be taken to "the West," where his kidneys and other organs would be removed and sold.
That's the story, anyway. Several news organizations carried the report, including the Times of India, the Associated Press, and CNN. The story first appeared Oct. 28, 2000, in the Associated Press, and was published exactly a month later by CNN. In fact, the child organ theft story simply vanished. No one was ever convicted of the crime; there was no follow-up at all, and there's every indication that the story was a rumor or hoax.
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This story falters on its own logic. A two-year-old's organs would be much too small and underdeveloped to simply insert into a grown adult. And it stretches credulity even further to posit that there is one or more two-year-old children in American or European hospitals awaiting stolen hearts, eyes, kidneys, or lungs.
I wrote about this urban legend in an article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine ("Bitter Harvest: The Organ-snatching Urban Legends," May/June 1999), and the reasons to be suspicious. Organs can't simply be pulled out of one person and put into another; transplants can't be done in someone's basement. Sophisticated medical equipment must be used, and donors and recipients must be carefully matched. Blood and tissue typing and histocompatibility tests must be done in advance.
Ms. Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights isn't convinced that the trade in children's organs exists, calling the stories "rumors."
According to the 1999 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, "Rumors persist that there exists an illegal trade in human organs, and the Special Rapporteur has received allegations that street children in [Latin America] and the Russian Federation are being killed so that their organs can be used in transplant operations.
Such allegations have recurred repeatedly for over 20 years, but to the best of the Special Rapporteur's knowledge, nobody has been convicted of being connected with such an offense."
The fact that no one in the new story is named - not the child nor her mother, nor even the people she was allegedly going to sell the organs to - is a red flag that something's not right about the story. If the story is true, we should expect further news reports on the trial. But I'm not holding my breath.