rosenbaum organ transplant racket was ‘an open secret’

How Kidneys Are Bought And Sold on Black Market
Rebecca Dube, Forward, Jul 29, 2009 (abridged)

Levy Izhak Rosenbaum is looking at a possible five-year federal prison sentence. Rosenbaum was arrested Jul 23, and charged with conspiracy to transport human organs. It is perhaps the most bizarre subplot of the FBI’s massive money laundering and corruption investigation that yielded 44 arrests in New Jersey and Brooklyn, including the mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield; two state assemblymen; five rabbis, and numerous other public officials. According to the criminal complaint filed in the US District Court of New Jersey, Rosenbaum told an undercover federal agent on Jul 13 that he’d been brokering kidney sales for 10 years from his home in Brooklyn. According to the complaint, Rosenbaum said, before assuring the undercover agent that he’d brokered “quite a lot” of kidney transplants, including one two weeks prior to their conversation:

I am what you call a matchmaker.

Rosenbaum is the first person charged in the US with trafficking in live human organs, medical ethicist Arthur Caplan said. His arrest has illuminated a dark side of the medical world, where the desperately poor sell body parts to the desperately ill, brokers make a profit and medical centers turn a blind eye. Caplan, who serves as director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and is co-directing a UN task force on international organ trafficking, said:

There is probably more of this going on. It is a very lucrative business.

The exposure of the organ-trafficking operation surprised most of the medical establishment, who knew of such activity happening overseas but not in the US. But Rosenbaum’s alleged business was an open secret for years among a certain community of Jewish transplant seekers. Robert Berman, founder and director of the New York-based Halachic Organ Donor Society, which encourages organ donation among observant Jews in the US, Israel and other countries, said:

Over the years, dozens of people have asked me to help them get in touch with ‘Isaac, the organ broker from Brooklyn.’ I always refused to do so.

Berman said that while he personally supports the idea of changing the law to allow people to get paid for giving someone else a kidney, he does not condone any illegal activity. He said:

The black market is obviously not ideal. People get ripped off.

Berman founded the Halachic Organ Donor Society to combat the notion that Jewish law does not permit organ donation. Because of that misperception, he said, Israel has one of the lowest organ donor rates in the world, which is why many Israelis travel to the US in hopes of finding a match. Berman said:

Jews have no problem putting themselves on the list to get an organ, but when it comes to donating, they have a lot of religious reasons not to.

An expert in the organ black market said that Rosenbaum was the main US broker for an international trafficking network. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said she told the FBI about Rosenbaum’s operation back in 2002. Scheper-Hughes did not respond to interview requests; however, she told the NY Daily News and WNYC public radio that Rosenbaum recruited impoverished kidney sellers from Moldova, where, she said, she visited a village where 20% of the men had sold a kidney. According to the criminal complaint, Rosenbaum told potential clients that the kidney sellers came from Israel. Scheper-Hughes said that the kidney sellers described Rosenbaum as a thug who threatened them with a pistol if they expressed hesitation once they arrived in the US for the operation. Medical centers interview potential transplant donors to make sure they are suitable matches, and a psychological screening is usually included, as well. Because paying for organs is illegal, Rosenbaum would create fictional relationships between the recipient and the seller, according to the criminal complaint, and would coach both of them on what to say. Rosenbaum said, according to the complaint:

I put together the story. Could be neighbors, could be friends from shul, could be friends from the community, could be friends of his children, business friends.

More careful screening probably would expose fake relationships, Caplan said, but clearly that didn’t happen, as Rosenbaum allegedly operated his trafficking ring successfully for a decade without detection. Caplan noted that medical centers make about $100,000 per kidney transplant, adding:

Some hospitals just don’t care. They want to make the money and do the transplant, they’re not picky.

Caplan opposes legalizing the sale of human organs, saying that exploitation is inevitable no matter what the legal status. Medical centers should standardize and tighten their donor screenings, he said. According to Caplan, the going rate for kidney sellers ranges from $500 in India to $10,000 in Israel. Caplan said:

The people who sell are almost always incredibly poor. They’re usually up to their eyeballs in debt. The people who are involved in this are past the point of desperation. They’re not making some sort of calculated decision.

The black market for kidney donation is thriving because demand far outstrips supply. More than 80,000 people are on the kidney transplant waiting list in the US, and every year about 4,500 die while waiting, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Last year, 16,517 transplants were performed in the US: 10,550 with cadaver organs from people who died, and 5,967 from living donors.

3 Comments

  1. lobro
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    … Jewish law does not permit organ donation. Because of that misperception, he said, Israel has one of the lowest organ donor rates in the world.

    call me stupid if i am missing something obvious … but rosenbaum shipped kidneys in from israel … why is everyone studiously avoiding the 800 lb gorilla in the room … tens of thousands of nameless palestinian prisoners in jew dungeons, herded there by people who for centuries observed the ritual of human sacrifice?
    (ariel toaff’s “bloody passover” is tough going but well worth the effort)

    i would even think that paramilitary units aligned with the likes of rafi eitan and meir dagan routinely go hunting for “donors” in the occupied territories – mixing business with pleasure.

    so, once again … Jewish law does not permit organ donation.
    but nothing in the same jewish law prohibits organ harvesting.

  2. mr.sound
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Dan Rathers press release for the kidney rabbi
    http://hd.net/pressrelease.html?2010-01-11-01.html
    The trial of Rabbi Levi Rosenbaum is set for 3/8/2010.

  3. niqnaq
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I wish Dan Rather the best of luck. Interesting that HDNet was created by Mark Cuban (Redacted, Bailoutsleuth, etc.)

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