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New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi

Part 1. Trading in the Human Body

New Markets, Old Questions?

Samira El Boudamoussi et Vincent Barras

Texte intégral

1The commodification of the human body and body parts for medical and health purposes raises major controversial questions in various fields including, among others, medicine, the law, ethics, philosophy and religion. This ensemble of questions gave birth to new areas of research that began to appear in the late 1990s in various disciplines, including social sciences, anthropology, development studies, gender studies, and public health.

2For some authors, the commercialization of human body parts may be considered a mere issue of offer and demand, since markets for human body parts are already well established and flourishing rapidly, yielding billions of dollars every year. For them, these markets should be regulated in order to avoid—or at least reduce—any abuse. For others, the central question is one of human-rights and should be tackled as such, given that most of these markets are illegal and based on trafficking, coercion, and exploitation of the vulnerable.

3Are these new markets characteristic of our era and therefore to be accepted? Are they normal or logical issues in modern, industrialized, and liberal societies? Is there historical evidence of commercialization of the human body in other cultures and civilizations? If so, what have been the context and justifications for such practices? Do the major religions express any opinion about the commodification of the human body for medical and health purposes? If so, what are these opinions? Are there ethically good reasons to ban such commercialization beyond the anticommodification discourse? Why are the anticommodification arguments considered weak and easily deconstructed? To what extent does the concept of “commodification” and the metaphorical description of a “cannibal market” apply to the four areas of activities involving the commercialization of human body parts for medical and health purposes that are considered in this book?

4These questions and many others characterize the perspectives developed by the authors in this first part of the book. Some areas of activities in the health sector, including assisted reproductive technology, organ transplantation, brain drain of health professionals, and biobanks are examined from different historical, ethical, juridical, and theological points of view.

5It is shown how the characterization of “the neoliberal and global markets as ‘cannibal’ rests on ancient genealogical foundations, the traces of which can be literally uncovered in different historical contexts and in different time periods.” The sacred nature of the human body appears not to have always been a disincentive to its commodification in the commerce or traffic of religious relics of saints in medieval Christianity. In the same way, scholars from various religions hardly ever evoked the intrinsic priceless value of the human body. Whereas monotheistic religions may agree that human beings should not gain money with their bodies and rather use their bodies to work, they seem divided with respect to purchasing organs for transplantation or similar operations.

6The contributions in this section underline the complexity and genealogy of the debates and bring to light that modern liberal societies regard any regulation aiming to control individual behavior as a form of reduction of freedom. Furthermore, they stress the importance of cultural motives in the way different areas of the world may or may not react to the question of the commodification. Proposed regulations might only be applicable within a single country and would only work in a society where hardly anyone would need to sell a kidney, which is not realistic. Furthermore, none of the required safeguards would be applicable at an international level because of the absence of global governance. If so, the question remains of what opportunities are at our disposal to conceptualize ourselves as human beings and to enhance our responsibility towards our common goods and resources, including those that lie within our bodies?


Researcher at the College of Global Studies, Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris, and visiting researcher at the Centre of Studies on International Cooperation and Development of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). She earned her PhD in education from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona and conducted various research projects at the ULB and Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona. The overarching theme of her research is science–technology–society: how society relates to scientific knowledge and technical advances, and how these are used in personal and public decision-making.

Doctor in medicine and historian, is professor of the history of medicine at the University of Lausanne, and also teaches sound theory at the Art University of Geneva. He has published books, essays, and articles on the history and theory of the body, medicine and psychiatry, contemporary poetry and music, and has translated works by Galen, Adorno, Cage, and Sanguineti among others. His recent publications include: “Neurosciences et médecine” (Revue d’histoire des sciences, 63, 2010), ed. with J.-Cl. Dupont; Le courrier du corps au XVIIIe siècle (with S. Pilloud and M. Louis-Courvoisier), Lausanne, 2013; Maladies en lettres, XVIIe-XXe siècle, Lausanne, 2013 (ed. with M. Dinges).

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

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