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New Book on Organ Transplants: Bioethics and Cultural Practice in Egypt

January 18, 2012

I got a great education in anthropology at Brown University back in the 1990s, but the department of anthropology has only gotten better since then (almost the only mis-step was letting William O. Beeman get away to the University of Minnesota). One of the impressive new arrivals is Dr. Sherine Hamdy who has an amazing and disturbing new book out on organ transplants in Egypt

Our Bodies Belong to God: Islam and Medicine in Egypt (University of California 2013) explores the culturally constituted ethics of organ transplanting in Egypt. She focuses on the “crisis of authority” that allows physicians to argues over whether patients who are brain-dead can be sources of organs. Religious scholars issue differing, contradictory opinions as to whether one can donate, receive, buy or sell organs.

People turn to these authorities to advise them on the issue, but at the same time are mistrustful because there is no common opinion and they fear the doctors and sheikhs might abuse their moral positions for their own gain.

There is a great interview with Hamdy in Egypt Independent. Here’s two especially cogent passages:

Hamdy: Well, the title of the book, “Our Bodies Belong to God,”comes from a statement uttered by the famous Egyptian television sheikh Mohamed Mutwalli al-Sharawi who declared it as a position against organ donation. But throughout the book I demonstrate that this statement is not so straightforward — a mother who donates her kidney to her son might exclaim in gratitude that God gave us the chance to use our bodies in this life-saving way; or someone might utter that the body belongs to God as a statement against the ways people are being made vulnerable to disease via political corruption and the irresponsible dumping of toxins in their communities. There is no lived religion outside of society; people come to understand what is beneficial or harmful — in both medical and religious terms — based on their experiences.

The reference to Sheikh al-Sharawi indicates the important roles media play in these dilemmas. The interviewer asks her about this:

Hamdy: The media plays a huge role. In the US, the media portrays organ transfer as a “medical miracle” or “gift of life” with little attention to social inequalities that are also present. In Egypt, particularly since the 1980s, there has been a lot of media exposure on the poor’s vulnerability to exploitation, which in fact occurs everywhere that organ transplantation is practiced, to varying degrees. These portrayals affect how people perceive the issue.

The interview is worth reading, and so is the book.

This gruesome photo from Al-Masry Al-Youm shows clearly why the poor might not want to sell their organs in Egypt.

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