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?


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