Invasion of the Organ Snatcher 

Invasion of the Organ Snatcher 

Invasion of the Organ Snatcher 

What the foreign papers are saying.
Feb. 1 2001 11:30 PM

Invasion of the Organ Snatcher 

A public inquiry in Britain found that over a seven-year period a pathologist had systematically harvested organs from dead children in an "unnecessary, illegal, and unethical" way. Rather than being used for medical research, much of the tissue was stockpiled. Most papers filled their front pages with photographs of babies who were later dismembered, along with heart-wrenching tales of bereaved parents' attempts to locate their children's organs. The Sun's banner headline Wednesday read, "Alder Hey Mum: My Baby's Body Was in 36 Jars." Each tabloid has its own pet name for the accused pathologist, Dr. Dick van Velsen: "Dr. Frankenstein" (the Sun), "the baby butcher" (the Daily Mirror), and "Monster" (the Daily Express). Van Velsen faces criminal prosecution in Britain and, according to the Mirror, also in Canada, where children's organs were found among his personal possessions after he was allegedly fired from a hospital in Nova Scotia.

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A second report revealed that children's hospitals throughout Britain routinely stripped organs from dead babies, often without their parents' informed consent. The health minister's statement, which reported that more than 105,000 organs are being stored around the country, recommended that in the future parents be given more information about the autopsy procedure and that the removal of organs require explicit permission—previously, there was only vague language about "removal of tissue." The Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer described the "somber, non-combative" mood in the chamber Tuesday when the minister presented his report as one of the "rare occasions when the whole Commons is anguished, appalled and united."

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

A Sun editorial called doctors acting without parental consent the biggest outrage: "It is this professional arrogance, this clinical elitism, this unforgivable high-handedness that disgusts us." The Financial Times fretted that the shocking revelations would lead to "revulsion toward legitimate research procedures." And for the Guardian, the issue is that the medical profession is paternalistic and out of touch:

Part of the problem has been a misguided belief among doctors that the bereaved should not be told the truth about autopsies, when they had only just learned of the deaths of their children. Hence the deceptive consent form which talks of taking tissues, rather than organs. But this deception has eroded the most important element of medical practice: patients' trust.

Stop the presses! A bomb destroyed five of the six printing presses owned by the independent Zimbabwean Daily News Sunday. The newspaper found an alternative printer and is still publishing, albeit with a much-reduced circulation. The News, founded in 1999, has often criticized President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF Party. An editorial said it was "very difficult" not to connect the bombing with incidents the previous week when "war veterans" (Mugabe allies who often take the law into their own hands without facing criminal sanctions) twice demonstrated outside the Daily News offices, threw stones through its windows, and beat a staff member. "The purpose of both demonstrations was quite clear: to strike fear in the hearts of everyone working at the newspaper, to make them tremble." The Star of South Africa reported that "suspicion is rife that the army was instructed to carry out the bombing," suggesting that only the army has access to the type of explosives used. According to a story in South Africa's Independent, three senior Daily News journalists were arrested last week and charged with criminal defamation after they published information about a human rights lawsuit filed in New York against Mugabe. Following the bombing, incensed supporters of Zimbabwe's opposition party burned copies of the state-owned Sunday Mail and Herald newspapers. Zimbabwe's Financial Gazette declared, "Assaults, bombings and murders of those whose only duty it is to let the nation know the unsanitised truth—the messenger—will fail to extinguish the torch of freedom or to kill the free human spirit." An editorial in the Guardian also supported the News' editors:

For them freedom to report and comment in newspapers is not a vanity of writers, but a bolster and precondition of democracy. Freedom of public dissent, which the Daily News represented, is no affectation of affluence, but a means of securing the good and honest government on which, in turn, economic progress depends.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, protesters destroyed the printing presses of the English-language Frontier Post after the military regime closed the paper for publishing a "highly sacrilegious" letter from a reader. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said that seven Frontier Post journalists face a mandatory death sentence if they are convicted of insulting the prophet Mohammed—just for publishing the reader mail. The letter accused Mohammed and Muslims of anti-Semitism and claimed the prophet was of "low moral character." Neither the Frontier Post nor its Urdu-language sister paper, Maidan, have been published since Tuesday, but the Post apologized for the letter in rival papers, claiming it was the victim of a conspiracy. In Colombia, El Tiempo reported that a prominent TV journalist has left the country because of death threats: Intelligence officials told Claudia Gurisatti, presenter of the current affairs interview show La Noche, that her life was in imminent danger and that she should flee. And in Australia, just going to work is enough to kill a journalist—according to the Age of Melbourne, health officials are investigating an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the paper's headquarters that has left one employee critically ill.