He is not the first writer to voice this fiction, sometimes deployed by apologists to normalize the abysmal treatment of African-Americans.
Far from being “nonexistent” in the 1950s and 1960s, the term “informed consent” — which describes obtaining consent that is predicated on conveying specific information about risks, benefits, known side effects, intention, design of and alternatives to medical studies and procedures — first appeared in the 1957 landmark decision in Salgo v. Leland Stanford Jr. University Board of Trustees. However, as early as 1900, the Virginia native Walter Reed observed formal procedures for obtaining the informed consent of his yellow-fever experimental subjects. In 1914, Schloendorff v. Society of New York Hospital used rights of self-determination to justify mandating consent from patients. A 1946 Atomic Energy Commission memo strictly mandated a higher degree of informed consent than even current American law requires, and that year, the Judicial Council of the American Medical Association also established widely disseminated standards for the protection of human subjects, including voluntary consent of the subject, previous animal experimentation and “proper medical protection.”
Instead of engaging with questions of transplantation ethics based on documented history, the author focuses on fictional accounts, extensively invoking the fantastic Gothic writing of Edgar Allan Poe and African-American myths about “night doctors” who steal bodies. Unfortunately, he doesn’t illuminate how the myth relates to the documented bodysnatching from Black cemeteries by doctors, an elision which consigns warranted African-American fears to the realm of horror stories and folklore.
This ahistoric approach is most dismaying, especially in light of telling errors that stud the narrative. The author writes, for example, about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study that the United States Public Health Service “recruited hundreds of African-American men and gave them the painful, fatal disease.”
This claim is untrue. Although researchers have injected Americans with gonorrhea, syphilis and other venereal diseases on at least 40 occasions since 1892, the study recruited 399 African-American men who already had been diagnosed with syphilis and promised them treatment. Even a cursory look at the pertinent history, including some titles in this book’s bibliography, would have prevented Jones from making this error.
“The Organ Thieves” tells an important story passably well, but its evasions and occasional missteps hobble its power to illuminate.