Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The ethics of global trade in human flesh and bone

The Bulletin of the World Health Organization has an interesting article out in its November issue, entitled 'Human cells and tissues: the need for a global ethical framework.' The authors describe the technological advances and growing interest in the field of tissue transplantation, and predictably, the rise of private, profit-seeking companies engaged in the procurement, processing and sales of human tissues. The biggest tissue corporations with the most aggressive and questionable practices, from the looks of the article, appear to be American. Medical and public health uses are only one possibility among others. Private companies have an obvious bottom-line interest in trading tissues for expensive cosmetic purposes such as penis widening or lip enhancement, if not more mundane uses, such as those we normally associate with the flesh of horses or fish: paste, glue, powder and suspensions. As far as current practices of informed consent go, those who donate or trade tissue on behalf of family members may or may not know where the tissue ends up, with the unfortunate possibility that your skin from your Granny's forearm unknowingly ends up on some stranger's foreskin. In addition,
there is the usual ethical concern about flesh and bones from the poor being harvested for the bodies of the rich, similar to concerns about the organ trade, only here there are more body parts in stock: heart values, corneas, patellas, powdered bone, hip sockets, you name it.

The authors call for regulation of the global trade in human tissues through the development of a binding ethical framework from the World Health Organization. However, it is clear that their proposal would be labelled 'socialist' by corporate interests in the United States, seeing as the authors call for 'reasonable profits' to be channelled into improvements in quality, safety, accessibility and R&D, and they insist that the ethical framework should 'prohibit financial gain on the human body and its parts.' If formulated this way, the framework would join the list of international guidelines that the United States would not sign onto. Which might not be so bad, if the US was not already such a dominant player in the human flesh and bone market.

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