It will come as no surprise to regular readers of tothesource that the sanctity/equality of human life ethic – which holds that all human beings have equal moral worth – is collapsing.
Commentators who reflect on this moral crisis usually focus on “culture of death” issues such as assisted suicide, abortion, and Terri Schiavo-type cases. But there is another profound threat posed by this ongoing rejection of human exceptionalism; the commoditization and exploitation of the body parts and functions of the poor, effectively treating human beings as mere natural resources to be exploited and/or harvested.
The most prominent form of this biological colonialism is the growing black market in organs by which the rich cannibalize the desperate poor from countries such as Turkey and India, paying them a few thousand dollars – or less – for a kidney or a slice of liver. The problem of organ buying has become so serious in India, that despite it being outlawed in 1994, non government organizations estimate that at least 2000 kidneys are sold and bought each year. The Philippines became so alarmed at the exploitation of its citizens that the government recently banned all foreigners from receiving organ transplants in the country. Meanwhile, China has admitted selling the organs of executed prisoners, a practice it has vowed to stop. But it has also been credibly charged – although because investigators are not free to look deeply into the allegations, it has not yet been proved – with murdering Falon Gong practitioners and selling their organs for tens of thousands of dollars.
Because of the reproductive processes and capacities of the female body, poor women are at particular risk for being targeted by biological colonialists. If therapeutic cloning ever takes off – obtaining embryonic stem cells from embryos manufactured through somatic cell nuclear transfer—it will require millions of human eggs to perfect and put into practice. But human eggs are literally worth more than their weight in gold, thus almost certainly setting off a commodities market that would pay women for their eggs. Moreover, because of the potential risks associated with egg procurement – about 5% of cases resulting in infection, serious injury, infertility, serious injury, even death – it is unlikely that well off women in the West would line up in sufficient numbers as egg sellers to satisfy the demand. The most logical alternative would be women in very poor countries where medical help would be less available should serious complications arise.
Alas, the threat to poor women is not merely prospective. For example, several stories have already been published about a new “profession” in India: Poor women renting their wombs to rich couples as surrogate mothers. The potential harm to these women, who are being treated as so many human brood mares, is profound. As Dr. Mohanlal Swarankar, chairman of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Jaipur and one of the leading fertility experts in India told the Daily Mail:
“Surrogacy affects the whole moral fabric of a society and could trigger complex psychological and ethical dilemmas with no easy answers,” he said. He also worried that in a country where women are often forced into submission, “Who could tell if a woman hadn’t been pressured to be a surrogate mother for the sake of big money?” He also warned that “the social stigma attached to carrying the child of another man” could traumatize women and their relationships with their husbands.
Another twist on this “fertility tourism” is for Western women to buy the embryos of the poor, the Times of London has reported. Because IVF is so expensive and bureaucratic, the story states, some families have chosen to fly to India and buy ready-made embryos for implantation and gestation to birth.
Then there is an even more disturbing, and hopefully apocryphal, story of women in the Ukraine being paid to get pregnant in order to abort so that fetal stem cells can be harvested for use in beauty treatments. If this story is true, it is literally fetal farming. And get this: The BBC – no tabloid source – reported that newborns may be being snatched and killed in the Ukraine for their stem cells.
There have also been reports of poor people in developing countries being used in unethical medical experimentation. Thus a 1997 editorial in the England Journal of Medicine castigated AZT experiments on pregnant women with HIV infection in Africa and other poor areas around the world. The controlled trials sought to determine the best dosages to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child during birth. Despite it being known previously AZT inhibits such transmissions, some of the women received a placebo that would do nothing to prevent HIV transmission, thereby risking their babies to contracting AIDS. This approach would never be permitted in the West. Indeed, it was in direct contrast to similar US studies in which all women received varying dosages of AZT.
One definition of evil is treating human beings as objects rather than subjects. That is precisely the implication of biological colonialism. While the poor may always be with us, that does not justify our exploiting our destitute sisters and brothers or putting them at risk to improve our own health or fulfill our familial desires. Rather, the proper and humane response to deep poverty is loving and selfless outreach, assistance, and devotion.