Commodification of human tissue: Implications for feminist and development ethics

Developing World Bioethics 2 (1):55–63 (2002)
Abstract
One effect of late capitalism – the commodification of practically everything – is to knock down the Chinese walls between the natural and productive realms, to use a Marxist framework. Women's labour in egg extraction and ‘surrogate’ motherhood might then be seen as what it is, labour which produces something of value. But this does not necessarily mean that women will benefit from the commodification of practically everything, in either North or South. In the newly developing biotechnologies involving stem cells, the reverse is more likely, particular given the shortage in the North of the egg donors who will be increasingly necessary to therapeutic cloning.Although most of the ethical debate has focused on the status of the embryo, this is to define ethics with no reference to global or gender justice. There has been little or no debate about possible exploitation of women, particularly of ovum donors from the South. Countries of the South without national ethics committees or guidelines may be particularly vulnerable: although there is increasing awareness of the susceptibility of poorer countries to abuses in research ethics, very little has been written about how they might be affected by the enormously profitable new technologies exploiting human tissue. Even in the UK, although the new Medical Research Council guidelines make a good deal of the ‘gift relationship’, what they are actually about is commodification. If donors believe they are demonstrating altruism, but biotechnology firms and researchers use the discourse of commodity and profit, we have not ‘incomplete commodification’ but complete commodification with a plausibly human face
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