The Business of Body Parts and Body Products

Ewww. The business of body parts and body products? What? Sounds gruesome. Kinda grisly and macabre. But, as we discuss assisted suicide, selling plasma, or Canadian transplant tourists, in the media the way that we conceptualize the buying and selling our bodies will be vital.

Just like the poster for Daybreakers says, our bodies are a crucial “natural resource.” Hopefully not for a Vampire elite.

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In the newest edition of the Canadian Bulletin for Medical History, I review Banking on the Body , which opens with an account of Connie Culp, the first American woman to undergo a face transplant after having been severely disfigured by a shotgun blast to the head. Yeah, a shotgun!

The groundbreaking surgery in 2008 included a new mouth, nose, and cheeks and, afterwards, Culp was once again able to talk, smile, and smell.  It was a transformation of Culp’s appearance, her quality of life, and so much more.

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For Kara W. Swanson, an Associate Professor of Law at Northeastern University, this procedure transformed all human faces and signified that it was “now a body product” to be “harvested from one body for use by another” (1).  Culp’s story is one of medical ingenuity and ultimately positive, but it also fits within a larger history where “…the human body has become a source of property and value, as well as a source of hope to the dying and the disfigured” (2).

The book is really quite excellent. By examining human milk, blood, and semen, it clarifies how bodies and body products have been organized and exchanged in the United States over the past century. In doing so, Swanson highlights the significance of two interrelated concepts –  the banking metaphor and the gift/commodity dichotomy – and provides lessons for Canadian policymakers.

In 1937, Dr Bernard Fantus of Cook County Hospital in Chicago borrowed the term bank from the world of money and markets to describe the process of stored blood in his hospital. Blood banks were a fresh way to think about maintaining the American blood supply and, not surprisingly, came under fire for the implied association between body products and money.

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Yet, Fantus’s aim was not to promote commercial enterprises. Amid the toil and deprivation of the Great Depression, Fantus sought to “subvert the market allocation of blood solely to those who could afford to pay.” Cannily, “…by treating blood as money, he was trying to circumvent the need to pay money for blood” (7-8). The term bank proved resilient and the banking metaphor has grown as the dominant way of understanding the tradable value of “disembodied fluid,” as well as other body parts (7).

While the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein inches closer and we continue to make advancements in the transplantation of human body parts, as in the case of Connie Culp, this sophisticated book has the potential to guide policy and frame future debates on bodies as both personal and civic property.

My review of Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America can be read here.

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