Organ Theft
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Basic Information

Organ theft is the unauthorised removal of human organs, generally for black market transplantation.

The most common version involves extracting the organs from unclaimed cadavers, generally via corruption of intensive care and/or mortuary staff in a hospital. In some jurisdictions, this is actually government policy - usually described as "presumed organ donation" - and only becomes a crime when the organs are diverted from official channels. This is arguably the least victimful1 form, but may involve people ending up dead rather sooner than might otherwise have been the case so that the organs are in best possible condition.

A more extreme version involves artificially producing cadavers from which to extract organs - this may be the sole purpose of the killing, or a thrifty side benefit … after all, if you are going to murder someone, why not sell their organs on the black market as well? Again, this is rumoured to be government policy in some places2.

Finally, the cinematic version involves stealing organs from living donors - this is usually limited to kidney theft (given that the theft of one kidney is survivable … stealing most other organs defaults to type #2 as above) and the urban legend whereby the victim wakes up in a bathtub full of bloody ice having been drugged and operated on. Alternatively, this may be a side effect of receiving a general anaesthetic from a black market doctor prior to some unlicenced surgery.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • In sci-fi/cyberpunk settings, characters with upgraded organs and other implants may be targeted for organ theft. Whether or not stealing someone's cybernetics counts may be another question of values dissonance.
  • Where biometric identification is a big thing, organ theft may specifically target relevant parts (such as eyes to bypass iris or retinal scans) … transplant into the end user optional if other forms of life support are available.
  • A criminal case may be complicated by the discovery that the deceased's organs were stolen post mortem by a corrupt medic unaware that there was a criminal angle (say an RTA victim, originally thought to be accidental).
  • Like all black market goods, stolen organs may come with Easter eggs - virus contamination for example.
  • In extreme cases, a type #2 organ may come with the donor still attached for greater freshness.
    • Indeed PCs might find that the missing person they are tracing just happens to be a tissue match for a major villain.
  • A utilitarian society might well find breaking condemned criminals down for spare parts a highly appropriate form of capital punishment - if prone to cause values dissonance to some irrational foreigners. Alternatively it might be someone else's version of human skin lampshades…
  • PCs might see this as an easy way to profit if they have to kill someone anyway - especially if they come from a cyberpunk or fantasy background where selling parts of your dead enemies is normal business.
  • Having a PC wake up with a kidney missing could make for a hell of a start to a story. Alternatively, have their ally, contact or dependent become the involuntary donor.
  • A barefoot clinic serving the urban homeless might turn out to be selling the organs of dead street people. For greater values dissonance, it may emerge that the clinic's doctors are using the money from the sales to fund their wider operation - the organs are taken from the legitimately dead and are keeping the clinic open…
  • All of the above assume mundane, medical motives for the theft - where the supernatural is a factor, human organs may be useful in magic or as part of something's diet. And then the people whose organs are being stolen might not be "people" in the sense that most people would use the word… werewolf organs, for example, might be extremely valuable to the right buyer.
  • This can combine nastily with human trafficking - illegal aliens are smuggled into a country in which they are not meant to be and then broken down for spares and sold to the highest bidder. As long as the rest of the body is disposed of properly law enforcement may not even be aware that a crime is taking place given that the victims do not officially exist. With a suitable tissue matching system compatible donors might even be "fast tracked".
    • Complication: the trafficking is expedited by a corrupt border official - or maybe a politically motivated one - who is prepared to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, but may flip when they find out the real truth.
    • Complication: one of the people being smuggled is actually of significance - or at least has enemies persistent enough not to accept that they "just vanished".
    • Actually, this might be a good rumor to spread to reduce illegal immigration ("did you know that there's a gang of smugglers who pretend to take you over, but instead just drug you and chop you up so they can sell your organs?").
    • PCs trying to illegally cross a border might run foul of a gang sizing them up for their scrap value.
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