What’s Wrong with Selling Organs (and a Taxonomy of Taboo Trade/Commodification Objections)

By I. Glenn Cohen

Many people – non-philosophers especially, but some philosophers as well – loosely use the term “commodification” as an objection to a “taboo trade”. By “taboo trade” I mean the sale of a good or service such as an organ, sperm, egg, surrogacy, prostitution, etc.

This is unhelpful since it means that people often talk past each other and substitute rhetoric for reason.

In my own work I have tried to disentangle various separate objections falling within this family. This is also important in determining what, if any, form of regulation might help combat or minimize the ethical concern. It is also important because it helps us see that some forms of regulation might improve matters as to one of the ethical objections while at the same time worsen matters as to another one of the ethical objections.

For this blog post I wanted to share my taxonomy of ethical objections drawn from a recent paper I did on objections to buying and selling organs and the potential ways various regulatory tools can and cannot be used to deal with them: Regulating the Organ Market: Normative Foundations for Market Regulation, 77 Law and Contemporary Problems (forthcoming Nov 2014)  In the paper itself it is set out more formally with supporting citations, here I present just excerpts more informally.

While I illustrate the taxonomy of arguments using the buying and selling of organs, in fact the same categories can be used for any taboo trade (prostitution, selling eggs, commercial surrogacy, etc):

1. Corruption

The basic idea behind what I have elsewhere called the “corruption” argument is that allowing a practice to go forward will do violence to or denigrate our views of how goods are properly valued. This argument is sometimes labeled the “commodification” argument, but because that term is also used in a way that encompasses some of the other arguments I discuss below, I prefer the more specific label of “corruption.” The American Medical Association, among others, has voiced this kind of objection in the domestic organ-sale context, suggesting paying kidney donors would “dehumanize society by viewing human beings and their parts as mere commodities.”

We can distinguish two subcategories of this objection, which I have elsewhere called “consequentialist” and “intrinsic” corruption. “Consequentialist corruption” justifies intervention to prevent changes to our attitudes or sensibilities that will occur if the practice is allowed —for example, that we will “regard each other as objects with prices rather than as persons.” This concern is contingent and to be successful must rely on empirical evidence, in that it depends on whether attitudes actually change. By contrast, “intrinsic corruption” is an objection that focuses on the “inherent incompatibility between an object and a mode of valuation.” The wrongfulness of the action is completed at the moment of purchase irrespective of what follows; the intrinsic version of the objection obtains even if the act remains secret or has zero effect on anyone’s attitudes.

2. Crowding Out  Continue reading

Using Tissue Samples to Make Genetic Offspring after Death

By Yu-Chi Lyra Kuo

Last month, John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka were jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their research on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).  iPSCs are capturing the public imagination as embryonic stem cells did fifteen years ago, but without the controversy surrounding the destruction of embryos: iPSCs can be garnered instead from living somatic tissue of an organism at any point in its lifespan–even late adulthood.  Yamanaka’s research has shown that somatic cells can be “reprogrammed” to develop into any kind of cell–including an embryo–speaking to the vast research potential of iPSCs.

In light of the research potential of iPSCs, I wanted to highlight the results of a remarkable study (published last month) where scientists induced iPSCs from mice into primordial germ cell-like cells, and aggregated them with female somatic cells to create mature, germinal oocytes. The team was then able to show that these oocytes, after in vitro fertilization, yield fertile offspring. Essentially, the research team created viable mouse embryos from skin cells, and fertilized them using IVF to produce healthy mice, some of which have already produced offspring of their own.

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