The Magazine

Have a Heart

The use and misuse of the (deceased) human body.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By CHERYL MILLER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Body Shopping

The Economy Fuelled by Flesh and Blood

by Donna Dickenson

Oneworld, 320 pp., $27.95

To be cured by the hangman's noose did not always have so ominous a sound.

Throughout the Middle Ages, executioners routinely dissected the bodies of their victims, and sold the various parts as medicinal remedies. Human fat, rendered from the bodies of criminals, was used to treat a variety of ailments, including broken bones, sprains, and arthritis. For those suffering a bad cough, a potion might be administered, which would include pieces of the human skull ground to a fine powder. Epileptics sought out public beheadings so they could drink from the criminal's blood while it was still warm and supposedly at the height of its efficacy.

If you think such grisly practices have gone the way of feudalism, Body Shopping: The Economy Fuelled by Flesh and Blood will make you think again. A professor of medical ethics and humanities at the University of London, Donna Dickenson gives an account of modern medicine that seems better suited to the Dark Ages or the most dystopian science fiction than the 21st century. For all the talk of "scientific progress," it seems we have become only slightly more sophisticated in our uses and procurement of the human body than the medieval hangman.

Body Shopping describes a science that has become positively vampiric in its insatiable appetite for human tissue and organs, sometimes outright stealing the raw material it needs. A veritable black market in human flesh has been established, with each part individually appraised and priced: "Hand, $350-$850, Brain, $500-$600, Eviscerated torso, $1,100-$1,290." A whole cadaver can fetch up to $20,000. The uses to which this tissue is put are no less gruesome. Bone dust from stolen cadavers might be found in your dental work. The collagen used to plump a starlet's lips is likely derived from the cells of an infant's foreskin. The "secret ingredient" in the various beauty treatments marketed to Russian women? Aborted fetuses from Ukraine.

"One way or another someone makes money off the dead," one proud body snatcher declared, even as he pleaded guilty to over 60 counts of mutilation of human remains, and embezzlement. The entrepreneurial spirit cannot be tamed, it would seem, especially in so lucrative a venture as body shopping. Funeral homes plunder bodies for spare parts and sell them to hospitals and biotech firms. In one much-publicized case a New Jersey mortuary service sold the cancer-ridden bones of Alistair Cooke--along with parts from other unfortunate "clients"--to one of the country's largest tissue banks, netting over $4 million in just three years. China, too, has joined the body-
snatchers, selling the organs of political prisoners and members of the despised Falun Gong sect to desperate "medical tourists" from around the world. A Chinese military hospital offers a kidney for the rock-bottom price of 200,000 yuan, a valuable source of revenue for the Chinese police state. As Dickenson wryly notes, "Buy yourself a kidney, keep the Chinese occupation of Tibet going."

But these are only the worst abuses. The means by which many scientists obtain the tissue they need tends to be much more subtle, if no more ethically sound. With the help of U.S. courts, researchers have created a paradoxical legal regime that treats the body as a priceless "gift" when first provided by the donor but as a valuable commodity once in the hands of a corporation or university. Under this model, the donor is a "pure altruist," unable to profit off (or even control) the uses to which his donation is put. Meanwhile, researchers are given the right to sell and patent the donated tissue. Such "one-way altruism," Dickenson writes, would be better termed exploitation.