An organ transplantI was engaged in a discussion with a statist, collectivist friend of mine about the merits of organ transplant, organ donation, state ownership, and government regulations of our bodies. He was of the belief that the government does not own our bodies, and I disagreed. My main argument was that if we are not allowed to sell our organs for profit, to be transplanted, we don't own them. My hypothesis is that if you really own something, you should be allowed to sell it any time for any reason, like any other personal property. Since there are laws in this country forbidding the sale of organs, especially for profit, we really don't own our bodies.

If we were allowed to legally sell our organs, the supply of available organs would increase, costs would come down and the lives saved would increase. Government regulation of the "organ market" has distorted the market, made for lengthy waiting lists, and increased the costs in regulation and transport.

I made a few other points regarding the illegality of suicide and the taking of drugs being a control by the state over our bodies, but my statist friend didn't buy it. Although he was unable to give a rational response to my hypothesis, he left feeling that he had won the argument. I wonder what type of state would have to exist in which we, not the state, would own our bodies. Does such a state exist in today's world? Do we own our bodies, or do we merely rent them?

Rocky Humbert writes:

If your main argument was that if we are not allowed to sell our organs for profit, we don't own them, it's not clear that the sine qua non which defines "ownership" is the unfettered ability to sell that item for profit, as it ignores ethics and regulation.

For example, the Government imposes regulations on markets (for better or worse). I can own certain ivory and switch blade knives, but I cannot "sell for profit" ivory and switch blades. But as possession is "9/10th of the law," my inability to sell switchblades and ivory does not mean that I don't own my ivory and switchblades.

Another example is that I can own a dog or cat, but it is generally unlawful to starve and torture the pets which I own. Also, I am not permitted to sell a "sick" cow to a slaughterhouse for profit. But there's no question that I own the dog, cat and cow.

And of course, the abortion/murder/etc discussion illustrates the profit question too. A woman may "sell" her eggs or body (as a surrogate mother), but if she is pregnant, the fetus at some point is considered a separate human being, and the discussion goes down a different path– where the mother's rights of ownership conflicts with the fetus' rights of self-ownership… etc.

A final example is conscription and coercion. You can be threatened by a mugger to give up your wallet. But that doesn't mean you didn't "own" the wallet before you handed it over. Likewise, when the Government calls you up to serve in the Army….

Lastly, you use the word "profit" in a strange way. In order to have a profit, one needs to have a cost basis. What is the cost of a kidney for sale? How does he know that he's not selling a kidney at a loss (instead of at a profit)? How does one account for the investment and depreciation?

Obviously, traditional accounting doesn't work too well in this genre.

Nick White comments:

Lord PannickI remember in law school learning that you can't patent your genes or "own" property in them, but a drug company can patent/ own a derivation of your DNA / biological material if you sign some obscure consent during some procedure that allows your DNA to be used in research. Inevitably they discover some miracle cure for xyz that they then Venter into billions whilst you continue to struggle with a terminal case of athlete's foot or whatever you originally went to be treated for.

The law is a twisted, inconsistent creature and, like any human creation, will be imperfect no matter how we decide it. For more, I would recommend the work of some legal philosophers who wrestle(d) with such things– amongst them Lon Fuller, HLA Hart and, in our day, Richard Posner. Bastiat will be familiar to most here, but he also had much to say on property rights etc etc.

Slight diversion, but best legal columnist and, I believe, one of the very sharpest legal minds in the world today is Lord Pannick, QC who writes for The Times of London…unfortunately, Uncle Rupert now charges to access his stuff, but you can find access to some of his court arguments by following links here and his wiki profile here. In terms of literal "human rights" and state authority over them, Pannick has argued it all.

And, of course, one of the best reasoned arguments for state ownership of anything (though, in the specific it deals with tax) can be found here– "Tax Avoidance in Practice" by David Goldberg, QC. Generous hat-tip to Nozick, John Rawls et al also necessary.

Victor Niederhoffer comments:

Since the purpose of life is to do good for others, according to the
idea that has the world in its grip, a personage of superior
sensibilities far above our own selfish volitions must make that

David Hillman writes:

 I suppose some might oppose Jeff's hypothesis arguing that freedom to buy/sell one's body parts would lead to wholesale profiteering by individuals, families, persons of influence, predatory brokerages, etc. but, if we should not be free to sell organs/parts privately or on some exchange, why, then, are we encouraged to give blood and why can anyone pop into the local bloodbank three times a week and 'donate' plasma for $20-$30 a visit? I suppose it has something to do with plasma being regenerated, as well as societal mores and fear of things that go bump in the night, of Igor and of the ghoulishness of sectioning the body.

The 'personage of superior sensibilities' seems to dictate that personal profit motive is out, and 'in the name of science' is the threshold of acceptability. But given the present state of the law, as Nick points out, one wonders if the state isn't acting less as an owner of our body parts than it is as an enabler of corporate profiteering from of same….'in the name of science', of course….?

In regard to the question at hand, may I suggest reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, Crown, 2010.

From Skloot's website:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells-taken without her knowledge-became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons-as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions."Henrietta's family did not learn of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family-past and present-is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

If her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn't her children afford health insurance?

free at Google Books.

Wiki reference.

Ryan Bickley adds:

I am actually reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as required reading for my freshman year at Johns Hopkins. I'm about halfway through and second David Hillman's recommendation. It's a very well told story with an engaging plot that reads almost like a novel, except that it's completely true. It gives a good history of how cell research has evolved over the years and all of the problems that scientists and patients have faced over consent, the owning of tissues/cells, and the profits of this research. 

Femi Adebajo asks:

Let's look at those climes where there is a thriving underground market in organs then. India comes to mind. How have these forces of demand and supply shaped the market there then? I won't bore you but there were some interesting articles on this subject in the British Medical Journal a few years ago on this subject. I can send you references if you'd like them.

I'll just be as keen to hear your thoughts about what the response should be to those who choose to sell essential organs, in the knowledge that their removal will result in their death.


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