Urban Legend Makes International News

by | May 1, 2011 | Skepticism | 0 comments

In late 2000, a horrifying news story came out of Russia: A grandmother was arrested for trying to sell her five-year-old grandson Andrei. Police said that the grandmother told the boy he was going to Disneyland. With the help of the boy’s uncle, little Andrei was handed over to a man in exchange for $90,000. But the story is more than just a tragic tale of a child sold into slavery or prostitution: he was sold to a man who would then take him to “the West,” where his kidneys and other organs would be removed and sold. That’s the story, anyway.

Several news organizations carried the story, including the Times of India, the Associated Press, and Cable News Network (CNN). The story first appeared October 28, 2000, in the Associated Press, and was published exactly a month later by CNN. The CNN story was the most complete of the lot, with photos of a young boy and a woman in dark glasses and a hat, identified as Andrei’s grandmother. (Click here for the CNN article.) The grandmother claimed that she was simply putting the orphaned boy up for adoption.

In the CNN.com version, a short video clip accompanies the story. The piece, narrated by correspondent Steve Harrigan, identifies the uncle as Sergei Tkachov and a police spokesman as Dmitri Korneyev. It also includes what is claimed to be undercover surveillance footage, though much of the footage looks suspiciously staged.

There are several reasons why this story is suspect. First, in the print versions, the principals are identified only by their first names. Other than the boy “Andrei” and his grandmother “Nina,” no one else is identified. Quotes are unattributed, with phraseology such as “A police detective said…” and “police said.” Of course, “police” don’t say anything; if a certain police officer says something, then he or she should usually be identified. This sort of writing helps obscure the sources, thus making follow-up verification impossible.

The story falters on its own logic. A five-year-old’s organs, specifically the parts the article says he was sold for-the kidneys, eyes, heart, or lungs-would likely be unusable for a full-grown adult. They 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 five-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. It’s important to realize that 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. Well-paid medical staff, both here and abroad, are unlikely to risk their careers and reputations performing such illegal and unethical procedures.

Another oddity about the case is that while the grandmother and uncle are photographed, (partially) identified, and arrested, no mention at all is made of those allegedly buying the organs. While the grandmother could get years in jail, the story is curiously silent about the person(s) she “sold” Andrei to. Presumably, they would be the larger threat.

There can be a seamy side to the transfer of children. That children are bought and sold in economically depressed areas is firmly established (usually they are used for child labor or prostitution). In addition, there is also unquestionably a global effort to provide children and babies for adoption-usually legally, but sometimes not. There is, however, a giant leap of inference between saying that the child was sold (or illegally adopted) and saying that he was sold to be subsequently killed for his organs. Some police officials undoubtedly believe in the commerce of stolen organs, and in many places the urban legend is wholly believed.

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.”

There are several scenarios under which this story may have occurred. First, the grandmother may have (as she claimed), been simply selling the child in an illegal but common adoption scheme, with no intention of selling the boy’s organs. The fanatastic and lurid details of the organ-snatching aspect were later added by the press. This interpretation is endorsed by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and director of Organswatch, a group fighting the inequitable distribution of organs. She was interviewed by the BBC, and writes that “My understanding is that the grandmother was willing to hand over her grandchild for a cash payment, but that it was a paid international adoption ‘deal,’ not for organs trafficking which was the surreal layer added on to a story that was sad enough as it was.”

It is also possible that the story’s sensational details were encouraged by Russian organized crime. A motive for inflating the story is provided by Viktor Vasilievich Luneev, a professor and chief scientific researcher at the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences. In a report titled Crime in the Twentieth Century: International Criminal Analysis (available at www.american.edu/transcrime/work), Luneev notes that in recent years it has become fashionable in Russia to sensationalize crime stories, in particular ones with a possible connection to organized crime. In fact, one of the tactics of organized crime is “Dissemination of frightening rumors as to their power, which brings criminal organizations more benefit than harm, since it demoralizes witnesses, victims, journalists, and law enforcement organs and supports the criminal spirit of rank and file members who execute functions.”

Steve Harrigan, of CNN’s Moscow bureau (from whose television report the print version of the story was taken), believes that the grandmother did indeed believe she could get money for Andrei’s organs. He noted that local police showed reporters their videotape of the woman being tackled and arrested with money attempting to make the deal. The question is a deal for what? A deal for an illegal adoption or a deal ultimately for organ theft? And wouldn’t the video look the same either way? After all, the distinction is one of intent. Harrigan’s take may be the correct one, but it leaves other questions unanswered, including why those allegedly trafficking in children’s organs weren’t named or arrested.


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