Bodies Without Souls

DENNIS TETI

The book’s title, Body Bazaar, is a pun on the strangeness of how elements of the human body — DNA, umbilical cord blood, embryos, bone, tissue — have become products for a burgeoning global biotechno-mart. For doctors harvesting human tissue, the body has become (changing the metaphor) a “gold mine.”

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Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age
Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin
Crown Publishers, 2001
240 pages, $24
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The book's title, Body Bazaar, is a pun on the strangeness of how elements of the human body — DNA, umbilical cord blood, embryos, bone, tissue — have become products for a burgeoning global biotechno-mart. For doctors harvesting human tissue, the body has become (changing the metaphor) a "gold mine."

Andrews and Nelkin relate stories about people whose body parts have been taken, often without their knowledge or consent, and used by health technicians for research and profit. Not only are these acts abuses, but they can generate undesired information that has harmful effects on those individuals and their family members.

For example, a Seattle businessman, cured of leukemia, was required to take periodic tests over seven years before discovering that his physician had patented his unique blood chemicals and negotiated $3 million in stock assets on them. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals paid some $15 million to acquire the right to develop the businessman's cell line. Yet a California court denied the outraged patient any share in the profits from his own body, in which the court said he had "no property rights" — because to admit them would discourage "venture capital investment" and "the future of scientific progress."

Women undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments receive increased dosages of fertility drugs to create multiple embryos that doctors seek to recover for research purposes. Embryos are hot commercial items, and sometimes, without the donors' knowledge, they are used not to help other infertile couples, but to develop commercial cell lines. One couple paid $30,000 for unsuccessful infertility treatments. Unknown to them, the woman's ova were implanted in another woman who gave birth to twins, leading to litigation over visitation rights. One study revealed that developers of contraceptives encouraged women to have sex during fertile periods before undergoing pelvic surgery to provide fertilized eggs for research — laughingly called "poached" eggs since they were filched during the operation without the just-impregnated patients' awareness.

The explosion of interest in genetic coding poses a growing danger from classifications by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any number of supposedly useful categories. Once everyone's unique genetic code is mapped, it will be nearly impossible to withhold this information from schools, employers, insurers, government and law enforcement agencies, creditors, adoption agencies, and other institutions. Biological testing is fraught with unimaginable abuses that we would now think of as discrimination, leading to unequal treatment of individuals because of genetic group characteristics. Just think of the social consequences of race- and ethnic-based studies of the genetics of criminal behavior.

Among the most dire potential repercussions of biotechnology is scientific-legal regulation of family and birth decisions. Parental refusal to permit the screening of newborn tissue is already a crime in Missouri and South Carolina. Most other states never tell parents they may refuse, and testing frequently takes place without parental knowledge. Complete genetic readouts of children's dispositions to illness will soon be available, and even though the illnesses may never appear, many parents will make drastic changes in lifestyle to fit their children's genetic indicators, either overindulging at-risk children or denying education funds to those susceptible to a late-life illness. How many parents might abort unborn babies because genetic data imply a predisposition to conditions that may never happen? The abortion rate of fetuses thought to carry a "gay gene" would be horrendous.

Claiming to prolong the life and health of man, modern medical science is actually abandoning man because it no longer knows what "man" is. Many researchers consider ethics an irrelevant concern that simply impedes progress. But what other concern except man's well-being — a squarely moral issue — can justify medical research?

This book's value is in its multitude of graphic accounts and the disturbing dangers to human freedom they suggest. Its weakness lies in the superficiality of its moral grounding in thinking about the dilemmas of the biotechnical market. The authors are deeply troubled by the lack of consent of the "subjects" of research and by the outrageous injustice of scientists becoming rich on tissue supplied by individuals who never receive a dime from their own body materials. Andrews and Nelkin prefer to treat the human body as legal property that can't be used without the "owner's" consent, yet they recognize that others can also treat that same body as property. They write that "courts and other policymakers should make clear that, even if an individual can treat his or her body as property, others should not be able to do so."

This is logically inadequate if not self-contradictory. Indeed, the basis of the biotechnological problem is the cultural acceptance of the human body as an object that is the property of the conscious "subject" who "inhabits" it. To consider the body as the legal property of its owner simply reinforces the prevailing moral culture justifying the biotech market — and will serve finally to hand the body over to government caretakers for social control and regimentation.

The breathtaking pace of modern biological science confronts civilization with moral difficulties in circumstances never faced in the past. One great virtue of the Magisterium of the Church, however, is precisely that it articulates known, eternal principles of moral truth under changing historical circumstances. The Magisterium has always taught that the human person is a unity of body and soul. This truth about the body, known through reason as well as faith, can provide the moral basis from which man may grapple with the challenge of biotechnology.

For example, to treat under law the surreptitious taking of embryos as a "theft of property" can only reinforce the error of considering unborn children as objects instead of human persons. It makes more legal sense to view embryo-snatching as a kidnap, subject to analogous criminal punishments. This way of thinking about the "body bazaar" might be extended to many of the wrongs discussed in this book. The moral premise, in other words, is that body parts partake of a human person and must be so thought of under law. The "person" of the subject's body must be treated with a dignity equal to that of the researcher. Thus, for example, to patent another's genes without that other's consent amounts to "owning" another person — in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment forbidding human slavery. We can make a more fruitful beginning to limiting the abuses of the biotechno-mart by thinking of the body, living or dead, in light of its personhood.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dennis Teti. "Bodies Without Souls." Crisis 19, no. 2 (February 2001): 32-35.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

Dennis Teti is associate professor of government at Regent University NOVA/DC Graduate Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

Copyright © 2001 Crisis


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