English 165LB: Literature & Biotechnology (W11)

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Tissue as gift or economic exchange?

Posted by rraley on February 15, 2011

// from Kellyn and Hayley

American society provides evidence for perceiving organ donations as both gifts and commodities. From the donor perspective- donation may be a gift with no expected payment. But once it is donated and in the hands of a hospital, byproduct company, or organ procurement organization, it assumes economic potential.

In one article Professor Tsuyoshi Awaya,  of Tokuyama University in Japan explains the “quasi-commercialization of the human body as the “Human Revolution.” Awaya points out that “tissue services have already become big business.” The processing fees collected by companies when exchanging human products is only a different way to state someone is purchasing an organ or part of someone else’s body. http://homepage1.nifty.com/awa/hp/ronbun/r010.html

The US Government’s organ donor site certainly portrays donation as the ultimate gift, asking Americans to “DONATE the gift of LIFE.” They almost try to guilt people into donation by displaying statistics such as 18 people die everyday while waiting for an organ. Appeals to the heart also come from the pictures displayed of donors and recipients whose stories all happen to portray them as angelic beings. The Internet eases the process of registering to be an organ donor and/or putting one’s organs and tissues into circulation for research. http://www.organdonor.gov/default.asp

However, a counterpoint to gift exchange is the clear use of tissues as commodities of economic exchange in bioproduct catalogues. The Europa Bioproducts online catalogue offers human plasma alongside plant tissue in a format creepily similar to that of retailers such as Target or Amazon, and in bulk sizing like Costco products.


Seralab’s Catalogue lists all products from either normal or diseased human donors:

Amniotic Fluid, Bile, Biopsy Tissue, Bladder Tissue, Blister Fluid, Bone Marrow, Bone, Brain, Brain (Homogenate), Breast Milk, Bronchial Lavage, Colon Tissue, Cancer Tissues, Cerebral Spinal Fluid, Ear Wax, Fat, Faeces, Gall Bladder, Gastric Fluid, etc.

They also list all the diseased tissues they can provide:

Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, Age Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), Alzheimer’s Disease, Asthma, Cancer (all types), Cardiac Disease, Chagas, Chlamydia, Crohn’s Disease, etc.

“A detailed certificate of analysis accompanies each sample supplying the age, gender and medications of each donor as well as any additional clinical information requested at the time of order,” serving as reminder that the products up for sale and ready for experimentation are the materials of human beings—with medical histories, and life histories. People who were once so much more than their Alzheimer’s diseased tissue now up for sale. It’s a weird thought.


Does the United States use tissue as a gift exchange or as economic exchange? Which is the better option? Should tissues belong to the person from whom they originated, to the company who receives them, or as a part of the idealized “commons” as discussed in lecture?


12 Responses to “Tissue as gift or economic exchange?”

  1. This article is about two sisters, Jamie and Gladys Scott who were released from life sentences in a Missouri state prison on the condition that Gladys must donate a kidney to her sister Jamie. The two sisters, both of whom are obese, must lose a total of 160 pounds before doctors will consider doing the transplant. The article also mentions that Jamie requires daily dialysis, which costs the state over 200,000 dollars a year.
    I do not think I have ever heard of someone being given a pardon by agreeing to donate an organ. This raises some serious questions about how the court views organ donation. Does it view the donation of an organ, a kidney in this case, by Gladys as being penance for her crime? It seems as though Gladys was willing to trade her kidney in exchange for early release, which could set a dangerous precedent for other inmates. What if freedom only required the donation of an organ? I have no doubt that some inmates would jump at the chance.
    Another problem this raises is that in the US sale of organs is illegal. I could be wrong, but to me this seems like Gladys is essentially selling her body for her freedom. The article even mentioned that Gladys, “came up with the idea for the transplant,[and she] volunteered to donate her kidney to her sister in her petition for early release.” In this case it seems that the distinction between gift, giving the organ to her sister, and economic exchange, her freedom, becomes very blurred as this is a little of both. The last interesting thing is to notice that Jamie was also released from prison, although she is making no sacrifice at all. Most likely the state just wanted her out so they would not have to pay for her dialysis, in which case there is now a another level of economic exchange happening: the state is trading the sisters freedom in exchange for release of an economic burden.

  2. Becca Smedley said

    Going back to the discussion of Tissue as a Gift or Commodity, I would like to side fully with the Gift model. As for the pure substances of the blood and cells and tissues extracted from our body, they have no inherent value. From an economic/accounting standpoint, we have done nothing to add value to our own body parts. So who is to say that we can expect to receive compensation for what is done with them? I think that people should consider donating blood or allowing their cell lines to be used in studies and experiments as solely an improvement to mankind. It may be a naive way of thinking, but I believe that there are lots of people that would and do give donations such as these without thinking of any compensation, but instead just thinking about the help that they could be giving other people. I do believe that body tissue can have an economic value once a knowledgeable medical/scientific process has been applied to it. Thus, researchers and corporations can add value to the tissue, making it intellectual property and receive compensation and patents for the work that they actually put into it.
    Furthermore, it is extremely dangerous and detrimental to follow the Commodity model and have an open market for human tissue and organs. As seen in the post above, markets like Europa Bioproducts will begin to make it easier and easier for people to sell their organs. For some, the explicit and implicit prices may be very high. Eventually, it will lead to a separation in the bodies of different socio-economic classes. “Harvest” is a perfect example of what could become of society and what we should be very afraid of occurring. Those peoples in poorer countries will resort to selling parts of their bodies to wealthier persons just in order to make some money. The people in wealthier nations will be the only ones that will be able to afford this, which could also alter the way that the world evolves.

    • Jason Whitehead said

      I found an article that could be shine light on a new option in the organ donation and tissue exchange industry. A new study at Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine shows some promising advancements in reproducing organs. Scientists reported successfully reconstructing urethras in 5 young patients with the patents own cells. The challenge with traditional urethra replacement is creating a viable tube that won’t collapse and the newly engineered grafts appeared normal about three months after they were implanted. The benefit to Regenerative medicine is that it harnesses the body’s ability to heal itself. If tissue is created within the patents body with Regenerative medicine, then patents in need of organs will not have to worry about waiting on a list for organs or risk finding them on the black market. This form of medicine seems to be a step in a positive direction for modern medicine.


    • I would have to agree with Becca about siding with organ dealing being a gift as oppose to a commodity. I also agree with her that this could eliminate the illegal organ trafficking black market. I think this way we can actually save lives of people who illegally give their kidney away in hotel rooms. It’s remarkable how the article I’ve posted shares that 1/5th of 70,000 kidney transplants are from the black market. It’s shocking to know that in Iran selling organs is legal, but what’s even more shocking is how the black market is used in the US by known hospitals and skilled well-known surgeons. Even though the gift ideology of organ donating is extraordinary in some cases it may become unrealistic. I’m a believer that people should donate blood or cells in order to participate in studies that could advance mankind, but I think donating half of one’s liver will be harder to just donate. No one really does anything without having a gain in it for themselves. I would find it very hard to believe someone volunteering to donate their kidney to a complete stranger without some sort of personal gain. However, when it comes to cadavers I do believe their organs should be taken for potential donors regardless because instead of letting the organs go to waste they can help someone live. I think it’s a bit selfish to not want to donate your organs after you’ve passed on.

      • Alisa Summerour said

        In response to Becca and Nairi’s argument of siding with organ and tissue donation as gifts, I’d like to argue the opposite. Organ donation represents a multi-million dollar medial industry where clients in need are willing to pay large fees for the procurement, transportation, and replacement of body parts. Although organ donation is often regarded as a “compensated gift” or “gift of life” (for those in first world countries) I believe that this rhetoric disguises the origins of commercialized body parts and the forced consent that is often used to extract organs from the most impoverished and desperate organ vendors in third world countries. In my opinion, organ donation cannot be though of as a gift when considering the coercive reality of the situation. Labeling an organ as a ‘gift’ implies some sense of autonomy on the part of the donor. The social insecurity and economic oppression faced by people living in a slum in the Philippines or a Brazilian favela (where black market organs come from) make organ donation anything but an autonomous and voluntary choice. It is questionable whether the exchange of an organ for a diminutive sum of money should even be termed as a ‘donation,’ as it seems to be more of a form of theft taking place on a hopeless segment of the population. It’s difficult to argue that Chinese prisoners who are harvested of their organs minutes before being executed, or the 500 people from Tamil Nadu, India who were cheated by kidney brokers in 2007 and never compensated for their donation did so as a gift to extend the lives of more financially fortunate beings. Furthermore, both organ donors and organ recipients look at organs in terms of economic exchange. Research has shown that the underlying motivation of most illegal organ donors is to better their economic situation, and for recipients it is a cheaper and more immediate way to acquire a vital organ. Thus, both parties are willing to prioritize financial considerations over their own health and well-being. I believe that even if a government-regulated program for organ donation was implemented globally, abuses of the most disadvantaged members in society would still occur. Rather than acting as a warning sign of what could happen in the future, I think “Harvest” is reflective of what is already taking place on the black market.

  3. Daniel Herb said

    This article is not about tissues per se, but rather is an interesting breakthrough in the use of artificial blood vessels. Rather than making tissues in surrogate animals or humans as pieces we’ve read have suggested, these synthetic vessels are created from the aorta cells of cadavers which some might argue is no better. But as the title of the article implies, “Off the Shelf Blood Vessels,” this replacement of damaged vessels with synthetics leads us one step closer to mechanized immortal humans. I like this articles’ explanation in that they call the blood vessels “universal” and really take no critique towards their use other than medical trauma that could be experienced by the patient. It makes me wonder if we simply framed the debate away from fear and towards the health and societal benefits, people may be less skeptical of the use of some of these new technologies.


  4. Kelsey McClurg said

    After reading Kellyn and Hayley’s post, I started thinking about how human eggs are exchanged as a commodity in the US and how the egg donation is represented on the internet. I explored http://www.eggdonor.com. The site provides donor profiles similar to Facebook profiles. Without creating an account, one can view an album of donor pictures, medical history, educational background including SAT scores and college GPA, work resume, and a self description page about donor hobbies, personal characteristics, athletic achievements, and understanding of the donor process. This is much more information than most people post on Facebook and the information is open to anyone.
    The inclusion of your parents’ and grandparents’ ancestry based on nation of origin has massive racist overtones. The warning in Vas that biotechnology could lead to selection of certain races as better than others is certainly echoed on this website. Vas’s question of whether society’s current measures of health and or intelligence are accurate can also be asked of the information provided by the donors. Does the personal information given accurately depict how the child will behave or the SAT scores that the child will earn?
    By exposing such a large amount of personal information, you make yourself a commodity as well as the egg tissue separated from your body. It is difficult to dissociate yourself from the egg because the egg still possesses your DNA; thus the potential child will look and behave similar to you. The invasive profile functions on the assumption that the donors desire a child that is essentially you.
    Some donors refer to the potential child as ‘their child’ when answering questions about future relations with the child or recipient couple. Can the child be considered ‘their child’ after they have legally abandoned their egg? According to Moore v. Reagents of the University of California the child is not the donor’s child because the donor abandoned the egg. Can the term abandoned be applied to a potential human being? Does a living person maintain a connection with the donor more than waste tissue?

  5. This is an article that talks about exploitation going on in India that is very much like that going on in Harvest, but this one is perhaps even worse. “Police who busted the ring last week say doctors paid as little as $1000 for the kidneys and then sold them for as much as $37,500.” Many of these kidneys came from “poor, illiterate workers promised riches for their organs and bused in to be operated on, [then] died, despite promises that they would receive excellent post-operation medical care and that they had nothing to worry about.” It is interesting that we read something like Harvest and can’t believe how shocking something like that sounds, when in reality the truth is almost worse. Instead of some regulated system where people know what they are getting and their families are taken care of, these workers are swindled out of their lives. I am not saying that I condone the program that Om joins in Harvest; what I am saying is we are not as wonderful a species as we often times make ourselves out to be. This article goes on to talk about India pushing people to donate because there is a large legitimate need for donors. Unfortunately, people are abusing the system and using the black market to make money. When I first read Harvest, I thought that this kind of program was a long way off; however, it turns out this fiction might actually be better than the reality!

  6. Mina Joo said


    The title of this article is “Organ Trafficking Is No Myth”; it really is about disproving the idea that this phenomenon is just a myth.

    Because illegal organ trafficking seems so distant or even fictional to Americans, it is far from being on their minds. However, this problem is very real in today’s world, especially in impoverished countries and even in America. In fact, there are some hospitals across America that take part in it by performing surgery for these transactions.

    It is sad to think that people are not aware of such an issue; even if they are aware, it seems that there is not much they can do about it. Those in desperate need of a new organ and those in desperate need of money will do anything to live. Perhaps by becoming more aware of the problem, more people can work together to someday figure out a solution.

  7. Kelsey McClurg said

    A recent episode of Desperate Housewives explored organs as a gift economy. One woman coerced her neighbors to attend a party where everyone was blood typed in order to find a kidney donor for a local resident on the block. Guests did not know about the party’s theme of organ donation when they arrived at the party. Many people, would not have actively volunteered to donate their kidney, but allowed their blood type to be taken. Was the party an ethical method of finding a kidney donor operating on the assumption that one can rely on one’s friendly neighbors to help in a time of need? Is social pressure a valid way of supplying organs in a gift system?
    The two women that qualified as blood type matches then competed for the opportunity to donate a kidney. Both women wanted to donate the kidney in order to find meaning in their life by helping another person. Is personal fulfillment a viable reason to donate an organ? One woman committed suicide directly after signing the donation papers. Donating an organ was her way of being remembered as a generous person. Should organ donation be used to define one’s relationship with friends and neighborly status in a community?
    The surviving potential donor is a close friends with the recipient. If she had donated her kidney, would her connection with her friend be stronger? In a gift based tissue economy, should attachment between donor and recipient be encouraged? If attachment is encouraged, is the recipient indebted to the donor?


  8. Discounted Economy Tissue Paper Light Green 20

    […] t donate. No one really does anything without having a gain in it for themselves […]

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