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ened in the commercialization of biology and the assertion by individuals of property rights in their removed body parts.
If I'm correct in saying that we mostly think and act as if our organs and tissues are not exactly property and not exactly surplus but a kind of gift, then that gift relationship is seriously threatened by these two events. There are dangers to the common good here. There's the danger that people may become reluctant to permit their organs to be used in research in teaching, damaging both enterprises. There's a danger that public trust and confidence in the scientific profession may be damaged if scientists come to be seen as greedy or, especially, as having taken advantage of a person who has made a gift of his own organ or whatever to science.
The first thing we have to do, I think, is face reality and admit that our system for handling tissue and organ donations is already changing. Nostalgia for an age of innocence will only blind us to the need to make whatever adjustments are necessary to preserve justice, respect for persons, and the common good. It's likewise true that there are values in conflict here, and that we will have to compromise in order to preserve what's important.
A couple of cautions. First, I think the greatest threat posed by this issue is to the public confidence in science and to the public's willingness to support science with, among other things, gifts of their tissues and organs. If the public perceives that scientists are taking advantage of people who have made such gifts, their sense of justice will be offended and they will expect some kind of restitution.
Second, I do not believe that elaborating in the consent form to indicate what will happen should tissue be the basis of a profitable activity is much of a solution, either. It threatens to alter the nature of the patient-researcher relationship, may diminish the supply of tissues for research, and is probably relevant to, at most, a handful of occasions nationwide in a year.
As to what Congress can do at this time, I think that biotechnology entrepreneurs should be strongly encouraged to adopt policies assuring that individuals and corporations do not unduly prosper from the gifts of individuals' tissues, and organs. Since the gift was originally given in the spirit of public service, some part of the profits should be returned to a similar goal. In addition, the person should be compensated; not because we own our bodies, but because there are two valuable things we want to preserve: the dignity of the human body and its parts, and the gift relationship between scientists and the public.
If biotechnologists fail to make provision for a just sharing of profits with the person whose gifts made it possible, the public sense of justice will be offended and no one will be the winner. Congress could foster a meeting among concerned representatives of science, industry, academia, and the public to draw up a voluntary policy. If this is not done, or if the policy is flaunted, then more direct Congressional action may be necessary to promote justice and to show respect for persons and promote the common good.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Murray follows:
Testimony before the Subcommittee on
Investigations and Oversight
U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Science and Technology
October 29, 1985
Thomas H. Murray, Ph.D. Institute for the Medical Humanities The University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, Texas 77550
What brings us here is a stunningly recent realization
that parts of our bodies might have significant--even
enormous--value in a commercial market.
As has happened so
often in recent years, technology has confronted us suddenly
with a moral and legal conundrum that we scarcely could have
No sooner are we introduced to the idea,
then we are being asked to make public policies to control
If there is any contribution I can make to the
deliberations of this committee, it will be to dig into our
moral traditions, and to look at our current practices for
what they can tell us about the moral content of our
relationship with our physical bodies.
I will do it in
First, I will look at three ways we have for
hinking about our tissues, organs and bodily products.
Second, I will try to understand where the current
controversy fits within those three models.
And third, I
will explore the implications of this, and other ethical
concerns, for making public policy on human biologicals. Along the way I will address the issues of informed consent
in medicine and research, and of the ownership of human
Thinking About the Body
Perhaps the most difficult thing about this issue is
We are not accustomed to thinking about
The first step in addressing the
our body in such terms.
problem then is figuring out how to think about our moral
relationship with our body parts.
The best way to do that
is to identify the possible ways of thinking about our
body--let's call them models--and see how well they fit our
moral beliefs and practices.
I apologize in advance if this
seems too abstract.
The French writer Paul Valery once
wrote, "I introduce here a slight observation which I shall
call 'philosophical,' meaning simply that we can do without
But I am convinced in this case that philosophy is
just what we need if we want to understand what is at stake
I can find three general models of our relationship
with parts of our body that become separated from it: as
commercial property; as surplus; or as gifts.
model is the body as property, fair game for sale or
purchase in the market place.
In favor of this idea, we can
point to the fact that people may legally sell their blood
Yet there are many things in our society that are not
Laws forbid the sale of our freedom, our
children, and most recently and relevantly, our bodily
The enormous public furor and rapid Congressional
action against a Virginia entrepreneur who proposed to buy and sell human organs for transplant testify to the deep
moral repugnance many people feel to the notion of a market
for tranplantable organs.
There are two likely sources of this repugnance.
is the worry that permitting organs to be bought and sold will result in the poor selling and the wealthy buying.
This is what has happened in Brazil.
A second source is the
deep conviction that the body and its parts are somehow
different from other things, central to our dignity as human
They are not commodities.
Even though we may sell
our labor or our ideas, even though we may place our health
at risk in our work or leisure, the conviction that the
physical body and its parts should not be for sale is widely
The controversy over surrogate motherhood points in the
A Michigan Circuit Court rejected a
surrogate contract arguing that "mercenary considerations
used to create a parent child relationship and its impact
upon the family strike at the very foundation of human society and is (sic) patently and necessarily injurious to
While the statutes seem to concentrate on
surrogate mothers as sellers of children, there appears to
be also some uneasiness about the commercialization of the
woman's body it implies.
motherhood, as for example when a sister might offer to bear
her brother-in-law's child, when his wife cannot, comes in
for much less disapproval, and may not be touched by most of
the state laws that prohibit surrogacy-for-profit.