Disqualified Bodies: A Sociolegal Analysis of the Organ Trade in Cairo, Egypt

Date01 June 2017
Published date01 June 2017
Disqualif‌ied Bodies: A Sociolegal Analysis of the
Organ Trade in Cairo, Egypt
an Columb
Legislative and policy interventions in response to the organ trade have cen-
tered on the introduction of criminal sanctions in an effort to deter organsales
and/or “traff‌icking.” Yet, such measures fail to take account of the social and
political processes that facilitate the exploitation of individuals in organ mar-
kets in different contexts. Informed by empirical data, gathered via a series of
in-depth interviews with Sudanese migrants who have sold a kidney, this
paper examines the link between increased urbanization, migration patterns,
informalization, and the emergence of organ markets in the Egyptian-
Sudanese context. The f‌indings illustrate how processes of legal marginaliza-
tion and social exclusion leave people vulnerable to exploitation in organ mar-
kets. The prevailing law enforcement response does not capture or respond
to the empirical reality. Accordingly, this paper shifts the emphasis away from
criminalization toward an analysis of the legal barriers and policy decisions
that shape the poor bargaining position of organ sellers. In doing so, it opens
up discussion of the organ trade onto wider critiques that disrupt boundaries
between formality and informality in labor markets and trouble dominant
modes of criminalization.
The organ trade is a complex social problem grounded in
deep-seated structural issues. However, discourses of violence
and criminalization predominant in media (Holmes 2016;
Pokharel 2015) and off‌icial reports (Council of Europe 2014;
OSCE 2013; UNODC 2010) characterize the organ trade as a sin-
gularly violent crime. Representing the organ trade in stark crim-
inal terms has predisposed legislative action toward crime control
and law enforcement. Consequently, criminal sanctions prohibit-
ing organ sales has become the focal point of legal intervention in
The author wishes to thank all the respondents who participated in this study. Special
thanks to Santo Musa Chol Wol for his friendship and assistance in Cairo. Thank you also
to Anastasia Tataryn,and the anonymous reviewers and editors at the Law & Society Review,
for their helpful comments and suggestions on previous drafts. This research was sup-
ported by grants from the Sociolegal Studies Association and the William and Betty
MacQuitty Trust.
Please direct all correspondence to Se
an Columb, School of Law and Social Justice,
University of Liverpool, Mulberry Court, Liverpool L7 7EZ, UK; e-mail: Sean.Columb@
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 2 (2017)
C2017 The Authors Law & Society Review published by Wiley Periodicals,
Inc. on behalf of Law and Society Association.
response to a phenomenon embedded in social, political, and
economic malaise. This narrow emphasis on criminality overlooks
important intersections of agency, culture, identity, and politics,
diverting critical attention away from the broader social and eco-
nomic arrangements that leave people vulnerable to exploitation
in organ markets. Whereas the threat of organ “traff‌icking” con-
tinues to capture the imagination of political and legislative
experts, as evidenced by the Council of Europe Convention against
Traff‌icking in Organs (2014), there has been relatively less atten-
tion given to the types of environments and circumstances that
predispose certain individuals or groups toward organ sale.
Drawing on the experiences of Sudanese organ sellers, this paper
will go some way in f‌illing this knowledge gap, exploring the dif-
ferent dynamics fueling and intersecting within organ trading
networks in Cairo, Egypt.
While a number of studies, largely in the f‌ield of anthropology,
consider the challenges of organ donation from moral, cultural,
and ethical perspectives (see Hamdy 2012; Lock 2002; Scheper-
Hughes and Waquaint 2000; Sharp 2006) there remains a dearth
of evidence-based research into the legal, social, and political fac-
tors that underpin organ markets and the networks that supply
them. Furthermore, there is a lack of critical engagement with the
implications of current legislative and policy mechanisms in
response to the organ trade. Building on existing studies on illicit
markets and organ donation (Goodwin 2006; Mendoza 2011;
Scheper-Hughes 2000; Yea 2010) this paper explores the link
between increased urbanization, migration patterns, informaliza-
tion, and the emergence of organ markets in the Egyptian-
Sudanese context. Informed by original empirical data, gathered
via a series of in-depth interviews, this paper provides much need-
ed insight into the processes of exploitation behind organ markets,
in a country identif‌ied as having an active trade in organs
(Shimazono 2007). Further, it considers the impact of new laws
introduced in Egypt to counter organ trading.
The experiences of Sudanese migrants demonstrate how pro-
cesses of social exclusion and economic marginalization can lead
to variable degrees of exploitation manifested, in this instance, in
their involvement in organ markets. Criminalization alone cannot
address these dynamics. Accordingly, analysis is redirected toward
the legal barriers and policy decisions that shape the poor bar-
gaining position of organ sellers in the Egyptian-Sudanese con-
text. While this study does not infer a def‌initive model or pattern
of organ trading, it does illustrate some of the legal arrange-
ments, policy decisions, and social conditions that contribute to
an anomic environment, which has fostered a subculture of organ
sales, amongst migrant populations in particular. The empirical
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