Monday, December 3, 2007

Everything for Sale

Inside India's Underground Trade in Human Remains
India has long been the world's primary source of bones used in medical study, renowned for producing specimens scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware. In 1985, however, the Indian government outlawed the export of human remains, and the global supply of skeletons collapsed. Western countries turned to China and Eastern Europe, but those regions produce relatively few skeletons. They have little experience producing display-quality specimens, and their products are regarded as inferior.

Now, 22 years after India's export ban, there are signs that the trade never ended. Black-market vendors in West Bengal continue to supply human skeletons and skulls using the time-honored method: Rob graves, separate soft flesh from unyielding calcium, and deliver the bones to distributors — who assemble them and ship them to dealers around the globe.

Exports to North America are still small compared with pre-ban levels, but shipments are finding their way to American medical programs. Suppliers have ample incentive — it's a lucrative business. The skulls on the ground before me, for instance, would fetch an estimated $70,000 overseas....

In 1985, the Chicago Tribune reported that India had exported about 60,000 skulls and skeletons the year before. The supply was sufficient for every medical student in the developed world to buy a bone box along with their textbooks. Price: $300.

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