The Ick Factor

To continue an earlier conversation, here’s a sobering paper from Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the implications of the global organ trade. And here’s a particularly frightening excerpt from her testimony before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights in 2001:

Markets are by nature indiscriminate and inclined to reduce everything — including human beings, their labor and their reproductive capacity — to the status of commodities, things that can be bought, sold, traded, and stolen. Again, nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the current markets for human organs and tissues to supply a medical business driven by “supply and demand.” The rapid and recent transfer of organ transplant technologies to countries in the East (China, Taiwan, Philippines), to India , and to the South (especially Argentina, Chile, and Brazil) has created a global scarcity of viable organs that has initiated a movement of sick bodies in one direction and of “healthy” organs and tissues — some transported by commercial airlines in Styrofoam picnic coolers — in the opposite direction. Some organs travel “inside their package”, a phrase some transplant specialists use to describe those kidney sellers who travel in special chartered flights to meet with pre-matched kidney patients and their surgeons in the host country. Sometimes both kidney buyers and sellers, each from different countries, arrive in a third country for an illicit transplant, making this a very difficult business to track. In all these transactions, a new profession of organized “body Mafia” or independent “organs brokers” — like the notorious , but not terribly successful, Jim Cohan who operates by fax, telephone, and e-mail out of a home office in southern California — are the essential actors. In these new transplant contexts the human body, as we knew it, is radically transformed. Notions of bodily holism and integrity have given way to notions of a divisible body in which individual organs and tissues can be detached, alienated, bartered, and sold. This points to the demise of classical humanism and to the rise of what my Organs watch colleague, Lawrence Cohen, refers to as “an ethics of parts”– divisible bodies from which detached organs emerge as market commodities, and as fetishized objects of desire and of consumption. I refer to this as neo – or postmodern cannibalism.

Props to Scott, my former debate partner, for dredging this up from one of our old files. The value of taboo, I think, is that it deters practices that entail non-obvious costs. The benefits of commodifying human organs are fairly obvious to anyone who wants to increase the availability of transplants;  the drawbacks only become apparent once we’re already bartering human body parts.

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Filed under Culture, Economics, Morality

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