The Market for Human Tissue in
the Biotechnology Age
By Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin
Crown -- 245pp -- $24
The sequencing of the human genome is a scientific accomplishment often compared with landing on the moon or the creation of the microprocessor. Researchers say the knowledge contained in the genetic code will lead to unparalleled advances in medicine, such as the ability to grow replacement organs.
But there is a sinister side to this brave new world. More than ever before, new biological discoveries depend on access to individuals' DNA and body tissues. As the market for body products grows, so does the potential for abuse. "When commercial interests and the quest for profits are a driving force, questions of human safety and respect for the human sources of tissue--the person in the body--take second place," assert law professors Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin in their disturbing new work, Body Bazaar.
The book is a thought-provoking critique of the ethical dilemmas swirling in this wondrous biological era. The authors forcefully argue that the commercialization of the body encourages doctors and researchers to think about people as projects or subjects that can be mined or harvested. Andrews and Nelkin ask important questions such as: Who profits from the trade in human tissue and at what cost? Unfortunately, this book often slights the nuances of complex matters.
Body Bazaar contains a plethora of examples that set dangerous legal and ethical precedents. There is John Moore, a Seattle executive treated for hairy cell leukemia during the 1980s who discovered that his doctor patented his cells and sold them to a biotech company for millions. When Moore sued the doctor and the company in 1990, the California Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Moore could not claim a property right to his own tissue.
Tales like Moore's make for gripping reading. Unfortunately, Body Bazaar makes the simplistic assumption that profit-seeking biotechs will take unfair advantage of genetic information and stifle innovation. But there are valid reasons for granting gene patents or allowing a company access to individual tissue samples. Gene patents, for instance, give biotechs incentives to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and dozens of years on research that might lead to life-saving medicines.
Body Bazaar also has a tendency to descend into the bizarre, focusing in one case on the travails of an immoral pathologist who stole Albert Einstein's brain, and, in another, on ghoulish artwork made from corpses, organs, or body fluids. The point is to show yet another way in which the body can be turned into a commodity. But the material detracts from sections on more pressing issues, such as genetic discrimination.
In the final chapter, the authors attempt to provide new legal and ethical guidelines for human tissue use. It's too bad they devoted just seven pages to this discussion. The greater failing, however, is the lack of recognition that these complex issues will require innovative solutions carefully balancing the needs of individuals with those of the private sector. Still, the book is a timely reminder of the ethical dilemmas posed in the world of biotechnology.
By Ellen Licking