Recently, an Indian woman named Premila Vaghela, age 36, died when she gave birth prematurely. Although she carried the fetus for eight months, Vaghela wasn’t considered the mother of the child, who survived. She was merely a paid “gestational carrier” — the dehumanizing term used for surrogate mothers in the IVF industry — who rented her uterus to a Western couple. That decision resulted in her own two children having to grow up without their mother, even as the happy new mom took her own baby home.
The commercialization of women’s uteruses in India — a big business there — is only one example of what I call “biological colonialism.” These days, instead of whole nations colonizing other countries in order to seize their natural wealth, an individual “colonialist” exploits a destitute and powerless person to enhance his or her own health or happiness. Indeed, the living human body is quickly becoming one of the world’s most valuable commercial commodities.
The 2009 book Larry’s Kidney, by Danial Asa Rose, recounts another tragic tale of biological colonialism. Rose’s cousin Larry needed a new kidney. Rather than wait in line like everyone else, Larry flew to China with his cousin to buy one on the black market. After a series of mishaps and complications, Larry got his new blood filter. Oh joy for Larry!
But what about the “donor”? Organs sold in China are mostly taken from political or criminal prisoners (perhaps including persecuted Falun Gong practitioners) who are tissue-typed and then executed. In all likelihood, the person from whom Larry’s new kidney was extracted was killed in order to provide Larry’s life-giving kidney, and the broker received a big payday.
Many in the West, perhaps due to a sense of entitlement, are blind to the exploitation inherent in biological-colonialist transactions. In fact, the practice of buying kidneys in the developing world has reached such predatory levels that some governments have passed laws to thwart the trade. In Pakistan, for example, so many sellers of their own kidneys have experienced serious health problems that the parliament outlawed all organ buying and live-organ donations (other than to close family members). For the same reason, the Philippines has legally prohibited non-citizens from undergoing kidney-transplant surgeries in the country.
The extent of the organ trade isn’t fully known, but it is clearly a big business. The World Health Organization recently reported that there are 10,000 black-market kidney transplants each year. It’s clear that the corruption bred by biological colonialism extends well beyond the criminal class — medical professionals, for instance, are necessary participants in the transaction. And there’s a lot of money to spread around: A “donor” may receive $5,000 for his organ, and the buyer may pay up to $200,000.
Sometimes, biological colonialism takes the form of “outsourcing ethics” (to use a term coined by bioethicist William Hurlbut): employing on human subjects in developing countries research methods that people would never countenance in the United States or Europe. Last year, the Independent reported that underage girls were recruited without parental consent for use in dangerous immunization experiments in India. Some of the girls died before the government stepped in to stop the project.
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.