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New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi


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1The development of new biomedical technologies (organ or tissue transplantation, medically assisted reproduction, blood components, etc.) has led to, among other things, an increase in demand for health-care. However, for economic, legal or ethical reasons, or due to human resource shortages, public health services in developed countries cannot respond to this growing demand, leaving the needs of some patients unmet.

2The liberalization of the international health-care market and the rationalization of public health expenditure over the past twenty years have resulted in two fundamental changes in the organization of healthcare services at a global level. On the one hand, some emerging countries have developed private, highly specialized health services specially designed to meet foreign demand at low cost. This new type of medical supply has a growing influence on the behavior of patients, who are seeking care abroad more and more. On the other hand, liberalization has also allowed greater workforce mobility, enabling health professionals from poor regions to look for better-paid jobs outside their countries. This double movement of health professionals and patients is one of the most noteworthy features of the new globalized healthcare industry.

3Traveling for medical care, known as medical tourism, has recently grown in fields such as oncology, cardiovascular surgery, medically assisted reproduction, and organ/tissue transplantation. In some countries the development of medical services in the last two of those fields is made possible by the lack of sufficiently binding legislation and the existence of a large number of socially vulnerable people. The result is a wide availability of low-cost resources needed for specific treatments (organs, human material, surrogate mothers, etc.), making it more or less legal to rent or purchase human body parts of socially disadvantaged persons in order to meet the needs of patients who can afford the costs of those medical services. Commodification of human body parts is another feature of the global health-care market. A new type of trade based on increasing social inequalities in most societies and between countries is developing. The result is an economy that is comparable not only to a neocolonial one, but also to a kind of cannibal market.

  • 1 The Symposium was organized by the College of Global Studies, Fondation Maison des sciences de l’h (...)

4Aiming to better understand various aspects of this new market and assess its implications for the future, an international and multidisciplinary symposium1 took place in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 6 and 7, 2014. Its major objectives were: (i) to analyze, from a social sciences perspective, the globalized development of the commodification of the human body for medical purposes; (ii) to develop the outline of a research agenda based on key ideas and findings that emerge from the discussions; and (iii) to create an international network of social scientists on this topic. The discussions were based on four case studies: (a) the unregulated market of assisted reproductive technology and, in particular, the development of commercial surrogacy; (b) the conditions for harvesting organs that feed the market for transplantation; (c) the “brain drain” of health professionals which reduces the capacity of poor countries to respond to their health challenges; and (d) the development of private institutions that collect, store and sell human material (gametes, embryos, blood, tissues, etc.). These represent four areas in which the growth of this market has significant human, social, medical, economic, legal, religious, and ethical implications.

5This book brings together the contributions made at the symposium. After a very fruitful meeting, each speaker was asked to write a chapter based on his or her oral presentation and the questions it raised. All chapters were reviewed by the editors in order for each part to offer a logical and consistent approach to the addressed issue.

6The book is divided into seven parts inspired from the structure of the symposium. Each part has an introduction and three to four chapters. It is therefore a collective work involving some thirty senior researchers from sixteen countries where different issues related to commodification of the human body are a particularly acute concern.


1 The Symposium was organized by the College of Global Studies, Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH), Paris, with the generous support of the Brocher Foundation, Geneva, the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences, Basel, the National Fund for Scientific Research, Brussels, the Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences, Brussels, the Institute of History of Medicine and Public Health, Lausanne, the Research Center on International Cooperation and Development (CECID), Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels and the Institute for Biomedical Ethics, Geneva. The symposium was cosponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO).

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2015

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