Tuesday, June 5, 2007

On The Wrong End of The Scapel

The doctor was a line of machines with a conveyor belt running through them. When the organlegger's body temperature reached a certain point, the belt started.

The first machine made a series of incisions in his chest. Skillfully and mechanically, the doctor performed a cardiectomy.

The organlegger was officially dead.

His heart went into storage immediately. His skin followed, most of it in one piece, all of it still living. The doctor took him apart with exquisite care, like disassembling a flexible, fragile, tremendously complex jigsaw puzzle. The brain was flashburned and the ashes saved for urn burial; but all the rest of the body, in slabs and small blobs and parchment-thin layers and lengths of tubing, went into storage in the hospital's organ banks. Any one of these units could be packed in a travel case at a moment's notice and flown to anywhere in the world in not much more than an hour. If the odds broke right, if the right people came down with the right diseases at the right time, the organlegger might save more lives than he had taken.

Which was the whole point.

"The Jigsaw Man", by Larry Niven

I'm glad this turned out to be a joke, because when I first read it, I wasn't sure:

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (Reuters) -- A Dutch reality television show in which a supposedly dying woman had to pick one of three contestants to whom she would donate a kidney was revealed as an elaborate hoax on Friday.

The show, which the broadcaster had said aimed to focus attention on a shortage of donor organs in the Netherlands, was condemned by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende before broadcast Friday night and sparked controversy worldwide.

Identified only as "Lisa," the 37-year-old woman who had been said to be suffering from a brain tumor was to base her selection on the person's history and conversations with the candidates' families and friends.

In the last minutes of the program, she was revealed as a healthy actress and producers stunned viewers by saying "The Big Donorshow" was a hoax.

The contestants were also part of the deception, although all three are genuine kidney patients.

"Their life is bitter reality," the host said after revealing the deception, just at the moment at which Lisa was to have stated her choice.

Dutch Education Minister Ronald Plasterk hailed the show as a "fantastic stunt" and an intelligent way to draw attention to the shortage of donor organs.

As P.T. Barnum famously remarked, "There's a sucker born every minute", and I got fooled this time. I believed this bizarre stunt because, horrifying as it sounded, it also seemed disturbingly plausible. When it comes to wallowing in tasteless vulgarity, these programs have no moral checks and balances. There is no bottom. Remember Who's Your Daddy? The producers of this garbage don't ask themselves "Is this wrong?", but "Is this legal?"

But there was another reason why I believed this hoax. I was afraid that the world had finally caught up to Larry Niven.

In Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's controversial science-fiction anthology, Larry Niven wrote "The Jigsaw Man". In his story, criminals convicted of capital offenses are forced to donate all of their organs to medicine, so that their body parts can be used to save lives and thus repay society for their crimes. Disposing of a convicted felon's body after death was found to be too wasteful. However, the ever-increasing demand for organs has compelled lawmakers to lower the bar for execution. Before, murder or kidnapping would put a criminal on the wrong end on the scapel. Now? A parking ticket.

And living in a era where, for example, the War on Drugs exists only to enrich the penal industry, who's to say Niven's premise is wrong? As Niven wrote in his afterword, "Someone has to start thinking about this. We haven't much time. It's only an accident of history that Red Cross blood banks aren't supplied by the death house. Think of the advantages--and worry."