A similar practice occurred in the late 1990s in Africa, where AZT trials were conducted on pregnant women with HIV to determine whether lower doses of the drug would offer adequate protection against the disease. Despite knowing that full doses of AZT would significantly reduce the rate of transmission, half of the women were given reduced doses; the other half took a useless placebo. It’s estimated that this much-criticized approach resulted in 1,000 babies’ being infected with AIDS — although infections were avoidable.
What next for biological colonialism? Let’s follow the potential money trail. Ounce for ounce, human eggs are the most valuable commodity in the world. Beautiful and intelligent college-age women sometimes receive $50,000 or more for a harvest of about 20 microscopic ova for use in custom-design IVF.
But buying eggs for IVF could be only the beginning when it comes to commodifying female gametes. If human cloning is perfected, it will become the next big thing for Big Biotech, and billions of dollars of profit will be in play. Scientists envision many uses for the embryos that would be created through new cloning technology: as research objects in embryonic-stem-cell experiments, in the field of genetic engineering and enhancement, and even in studies whose goal is the successful birth of a cloned baby.
Each cloning attempt requires one human egg, currently a precious commodity. But what happens if we finally see a big breakthrough in cloning? The demand for human eggs would probably skyrocket.
Where would biotechnologists obtain the tens of thousands of eggs they need to ensure that the cloning industry grows? Scientists hope to be able to turn stem cells into usable eggs; they also aim to harvest ova from ovaries surgically removed for health reasons, from cadavers, or from late-stage aborted fetuses. Experiments in pursuit of all these approaches are already under way. But if those sources provide an insufficient supply, we could see organ merchants brokering ovary sales from the poor just as they now do with kidneys. Another potential egg source would be women in developing countries: They would receive pay to undergo the rigors and potential risks of super-ovulation. Of course the money paid would be considerably less than what young Western women currently receive; and unlike here, women in developing nations have little opportunity for quality medical care if serious complications arise.
Some might respond that these actual and potential examples of biological colonialism are not such a big deal — just the marketplace at work. But the donor’s consent surely isn’t the be-all and end-all, especially when the parties to these transactions have such disproportionate bargaining power. Besides, we could make the same argument about voluntarily entering into indentured servitude or selling oneself to a sex trafficker. Societies have a right — a duty — to outlaw even voluntary transactions that exploit the bodies of vulnerable human beings.
Laws aside: Renting the gestational capacities of destitute women and buying organs from the desperate poor should not be celebrated or condoned. Such practices deserve our scorn.
—Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a legal consultant for the Patients Rights Council.