San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Would CAFTA Open Human Organ Trade?

In what is perhaps the most bizarre twist so far in the debate over the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), a group of doctors is arguing that the treaty will open up commercial trade in human bones, tissue and organs, which are used in many different medical transplant operations.

In an article headlined “Bones, Organs, and Human Tissue Will Be Sold Under CAFTA!” that appeared in the daily Diario Extra on July 10, four Costa Rican doctors presented the claim.

Since then, at least one of the doctors has appeared on several different radio talk shows, several anti-CAFTA blogs have taken up the charge and the Patriotic Movement for No on CAFTA has issued a press statement supporting the doctors.

“CAFTA doesn’t just commercialize human organs – they will be trafficked like export articles, and free from taxes,” Guido Miranda, former executive president of the Social Security System (Caja), told Diario Extra.

“The problem,” the doctor continued, “is knowing how those organs will be obtained.”

But don’t go hiding your kidneys just yet. While donations go on all the time, buying and selling human tissue and organs is illegal in all cases in Costa Rica and in most cases in the United States, according to doctors and legal experts consulted by The Tico Times.

And the CAFTA text cited by Miranda and the other doctors wouldn’t change that, said Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruíz and Health Minister María Luisa Avila.

The part of CAFTA that the Costa Rican doctors refer to is a single line in the 352-page Annex 3.3 of CAFTA that lays out the tariff schedules on everything from industrial chemicals to hedge clippers.

Item 30019010 in that tariff schedule lists “bones, organs, and human tissues, for transplants and grafting” as a Base A, Category 1 item, which Ruíz has confirmed means that tariffs will be removed on that “merchandise.”

Dr. Rodrigo Cabezas, a U.S.-trained doctor among the four who presented their protest to Diario Extra, asserted that by categorizing those items as tradable, CAFTA will create a market in organs, bones and tissue that will supercede Costa Rican law.

“This is a legal loophole,” Cabezas told The Tico Times.

But while CAFTA would remove the possibility of tariffs on human bones, organs and tissues, it’s a long way from changing both Costa Rican and U.S. laws that explicitly forbid trade in those items.

Health Minister Avila pointed out that commercializing human body parts is forbidden in Costa Rica under both the General Health Law and the law that authorizes organ transplants.

Likewise, in the United States it is a federal crime to buy or sell organs “and any subpart thereof” according to the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, said University of Southern California Gould School of Law Professor Michael Shapiro.

Some U.S. states do, however, allow the buying and selling of “renewable tissue” like blood plasma and sperm, something Costa Rican law does not permit, said Clínica Bíblica Hospital’s assistant medical director, Juan Manuel Aragón.

So why would the CAFTA tariff schedule include an item that is illegal to trade? U.S. Trade Representative spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said it’s strictly a matter of eliminating tariffs on as many products as possible, no matter how bizarre, so that if one of them does become legal in some far off future, the two countries wouldn’t have to hammer out a whole new agreement.

“The existence of a zero tariff line does not propose trade in those products,” she said, noting that in many of the United States’ tariff schedules in free-trade pacts, tariffs are eliminated even on products those countries don’t produce. “At the end of the day, zeros in our tariffs schedules is what all trade agreements strive to be.”

Indeed, the CAFTA tariff schedule seems to include just about every item conceivable, and a quick search reveals that many of them are non-saleable and downright illegal, including cocaine, heroine, monkeys, rocket launchers and whales.

In fact, it’s not even the first time Costa Rica has eliminated tariffs on human bones, organs and tissues, as Ruíz pointed out in his own response in Diario Extra.

“This is completely normal, and in fact, that classification is included in the (World Trade Organization) list and in the lists of all the free-trade agreements we’ve signed onto,” Ruíz said.

Indeed, Costa Rica’s free-trade agreement with Mexico, in effect since 1994, also has a tariff schedule item referring to “organs, bones and human tissue for grafting.”

Likewise, the country’s free-trade agreement with Canada, ratified in 2002, contains the exact same tariff item as CAFTA regarding organs, bone and tissue.

Neither is it the first time that anti-CAFTA activists have been in an uproar over a quirky item found in the 352-page tariffs schedule. Last year, anti-CAFTA groups and legislators charged that the inclusion of a variety of weapons of war in the tariffs schedule meant that the treaty would cancel out Costa Rica’s long-standing laws against such arms (TT, June 16, 2006).


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