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FAQs about property in the body

Of course I own my body—don’t I?

Sorry, no—not once your tissue has been separated from your body. In the Moore case, an immortal cell line worth three billion dollars was created from the immune cells of a patient, but the courts held that he had no ownership rights in that cell line. Most people are surprised and somewhat shocked when they learn that Moore apparently didn’t own his body.  Previously that wouldn’t have mattered: if parts of the body were removed, it was usually because the tissue was diseased. But nowadays such tissue can have enormous commercial value.

Aren’t you just against scientific and medical progress?

Not at all. I’m actually very worried that medical progress is being hampered by the way in which the body has become a product. For example, because one in five genes is now under patent restriction, medical research teams often can’t carry out much-needed studies unless they pay a licence fee to the private company that holds the patent. Commercialisation of the human body isn’t always necessary to medical progress, and in some cases it’s actively bad for science.

We live in a consumer society, don’t we? So what else do you expect?

But markets in human tissue have just gone too far; we’ve had some terrible abuses recently. The leg bones of the late broadcaster Alistair Cooke were stolen by a criminal ring as his body lay in a New York funeral home, and subsequently sold, like those of an estimated 1800 other people, for processing into dental implants. (To make things even worse, Cooke had cancer in his bones.) Advertisements regularly circulate in US college newspapers, offering egg ‘donors’ amounts varying between $5,000-$50,000, depending on ‘desirability’. Blond, tall, athletic and musical donors command the higher prices, at considerable risk to themselves.  One report documented the taking of seventy eggs at one time from a ‘donor’ who nearly died in the process; another, the international trade for beauty treatments of fetuses from Ukrainian women, who had been paid £100 to have an abortion.

Other Western consumer societies are trying to do something about ‘body shopping’. France and Germany, for example, insist that the tissue in their national ‘biobanks’ must remain the property of people who donated it, whereas UK Biobank is the sole owner of any tissue that you or I might give to it. And do we have the right to impose our Western consumer model on the developing world? Third World populations are increasingly being targeted by First World biomedical researchers, but some countries in the global South, like Tonga, have flatly refused to allow them in, because they see these activities as just another form of globalisation and colonialism.

But you can’t buck the market! There’s no point trying to pass laws regulating the new biotechnologies; they just won’t work.

 Just because we can’t stop some people breaking the law obviously doesn’t mean we should never pass any laws at all. (We’ll always have some murders, but we still think it’s worth having laws against murder.) In biotechnology, the rapid pace of developments does mean that biotechnology firms are likely to be one step ahead of activists, but a number of activist organisations and bioethics commentators have actually foreseen developments well in advance. For example, I’ve been predicting the widespread demand for human eggs to be used in the stem cell technologies since an article I published in 2001. Five years later, we saw exactly that development in the case of the disgraced Korean stem cell ‘pioneer’ Hwang Woo Suk, who used 2,200 eggs from ‘volunteers’, including his junior research staff—all of which were wasted on fraudulent research.

Well, if women volunteer to give eggs, that’s their business. They’ve made a free choice, haven’t they? Why should the government interfere?

In the Hwang case it’s clear that the ‘volunteers’ were under pressure, but some women do donate altruistically, and that’s an important right. But just because someone has made a ‘free’ choice to engage in any activity doesn’t mean the law has nothing to say about it. If I choose to take a particular job, my employer can’t just wash his hands of responsibility for my health and welfare. We have health and safety legislation, employment protection laws and all kinds of other ‘interference’ by the government to protect workers, because they may be vulnerable to abuses otherwise. The same is true of women who donate eggs for the stem cell technologies. We need strict regulation to protect them, if we decide to allow them to donate. And the same is true of everyone who may be affected by ‘body shopping’-- by the growing commercialisation of human tissue.


© Donna Dickenson 2010
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