Sunday, December 2, 2007

India's Underground Trade in Human Remains

I had assumed that the black-market industry dealing in human remains was a thing of the distant past; turns out I was wrong. It seems there is still a steady black-market trade, and it is centered in India; Scott Carney tells (and shows) the fascinating story in this month's Wired Magazine and on NPR.

Carney details the story of how India came to dominate the market supplying display-grade skeletons for medical schools in the United States and Europe. India enjoyed a lucrative and legal trade in the skeletons for over a century; it dominated the market because its product was renowned as the best, with "specimens scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware." (Wired) The legal trade was banned in 1985, after rumors surfaced that traders were murdering people for their bones. The practice, however, did not end; it simply went underground. Medical schools still needed display skeletons and were willing to pay a handsome price; a lucrative (see above chart) and brisk trade in black-market skeletons surfaced to supply the demand, with traders resorting to digging up graves and other ethically questionable practices to procure product.

This story is fascinating in how it highlights how little has changed, in substance or detail, since the 19th Century, with its Burke and Hare scandals, its graverobbers and resurrectionists, popular fear of the safety of the body after death, and the lucrative nature of the ethically slippery human remains. Like the 19th Century, medical schools are hungry for a supply of human remains, human remains are hard to come by, and enterprising entrepreneurs are rising to the occasion.

Check out the full stories (and images) here and in here.


CB said...

I've become quite a follower of your pieces. This was an excellent post. I knew this had to be happening, but of course couldn't know where. Quite an interesting read, thank you.

Jean-Baptiste said...

You might be interested in our Issue of the Day on the Organ Market. We pulled together 4 of the top posts on this subject at The Issue.

amiya said...

So it seems that India is a 'grave' offender, what about its clients then? It obviously is an offense if the skeletons were exported without the permission of the relatives, assuming that permission by the deceased cease to become relevant or accessible (a page 404 error!).

As in stem cell research, we should NOT impose constraints which are impediment to research. People should have a valid right to examine 'real' bones, if available.