Nancy Scheper-Hughes Responds to Our Profile, 'The Organ Detective' - Pacific Standard

Nancy Scheper-Hughes Responds to Our Profile, 'The Organ Detective'

The chair of the doctoral program in medical anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley was written about in the July/August issue of Pacific Standard.
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View from Memorial Glade of Sather Tower at the University of California-Berkeley. (Photo: brainchildvn/Wikimedia Commons)

View from Memorial Glade of Sather Tower at the University of California-Berkeley. (Photo: brainchildvn/Wikimedia Commons)

In his profile of me (“The Organ Detective,” July/August), Ethan Watters quotes sources indicating that I have a deep animus toward the medical establishment. I have always worked closely with surgeons, pathologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, and transplant professionals. I have co-authored numerous articles with physicians and transplant surgeons. In 2007, I was offered a McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair and Professorship at the University of Minnesota, with a primary appointment in the Department of Surgery. I declined, regretfully, but I believe the offer reflected that school’s faith in my ability to play a positive role in the training of medical students (including surgeons) in medical anthropological concepts and methods bearing on ethical clinical practice.

In different ways, and from very different political, moral, and professional positions, together we were able to bring the sad story into international public discourse.

Watters also writes about the scandal surrounding the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, the sole facility in Israel that conducts official autopsies. But he leaves out crucial details. For more than two decades, the Israeli government denied accusations that pathologists at Abu Kabir were secretly harvesting organs, bone, skin, and other tissues from the bodies of “enemy” combatants as well as Israeli citizens. Israeli officials dismissed these charges as “blood libel” against the state. In the early 1990s, a Swedish journalist named Donald Bostrom and I, independently of each other, began investigating allegations of human rights abuses at the institute, Bostrom in the West Bank and me in Israel. Neither Bostrom nor I knew that an internal whistle-blower, Chen Kugel, a young Israeli forensic pathologist and military officer at Abu Kabir, was working behind the scenes to stop the plunder of dead bodies at the institute. As Kugel observed, hearts, glands, heads, and even skin grafts of tattoos were being stockpiled and sold for poorly specified “science,” or kept in a kind of curiosity museum.

In 2009, after Bostrom sparked an international controversy with an article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, I released an audio interview with Yehuda Hiss, the longtime director of Abu Kabir, in which he acknowledged the illicit harvesting. This resulted in an unlikely and uneasy collaboration among Kugel, Bostrom, and me. In different ways, and from very different political, moral, and professional positions, together we were able to bring the sad story into international public discourse. In the end, the Israeli government admitted to the crimes committed against Jewish as well as Muslim, Christian, and immigrant dead bodies. Yehuda Hiss was removed, and the heroic whistle-blower, Dr. Kugel, was appointed Hiss’ successor. As a result, all dead bodies at Abu Kabir are safe and protected.

My discipline’s reticence toward actively engaged scholarship has sometimes turned anthropologists into bystanders when crimes against humanity are taking place.

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