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New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi

Part 5. The Human-Product-Banking Industry

Do Human Body Parts Have a Social Life?

Vinh-Kim Nguyen

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1We are in an era in which the processing of human cells, tissues, and organs into therapeutic tools and pharmacological agents has burgeoned into a globalized industry, with the potential to create enormous wealth, especially for drug and other biotechnology companies. Articles about the commodification of human eggs, sperm, blood, cells and organs appear frequently in the media. The language of individual rights, privacy, and dignity is often appended to them, and sometimes discussion about the appropriate disposal of body parts is included, couched in the language of property. But debate about the broader social implications of commodification of tissues and organs is less common—notably about new forms of inequity and equally, at times, new forms of social solidarity that are emerging as a result of these technologies. Furthermore, the “social life” of human body parts, to paraphrase the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff, and their ambiguity as signifiers, is rarely discussed, nor are the social ramifications of the moral economy associated with this new form of exchange. When human body parts can readily be disaggregated and redistributed for use as therapeutic material in other people, or else as research material, what does this entail for our sense of relatedness to each other? Medical use of human and animal bodies has long been justified in terms of saving lives and enhancing medical knowledge, and obviously biomedical knowledge should not stagnate, but irresolvable contradictions persist when human body parts and human experimentation are the principle means to this end.

2Disputes may arise in the social exchange of virtually all kinds of objects, but the commodification of human cells, tissues, and organs is of particular concern because boundaries assumed to be natural and inviolable are inevitably transgressed through technological manipulation. Debates also arise when tissue, for example, is transplanted from one person to another about what constitutes “self” and “other.” Or, when people provide bodily fluids or tissue for research, arguments takes place about where the line should be drawn between individual interest and privacy and possible financial gain, as opposed to the gifting of biological material for the greater good of humankind. Disagreements are not simply about ownership, property rights, intellectual property, or even about alienability, but also result from a profound angst about possible violations of the moral order. This part is about techno/biologicals of one kind and another; above all, it is about the social repercussions of their creation, supply, and application in practice.

3The human-product-banking industry has been a bellwether for broader concerns around the commodification and exchange of body parts. While these concerns first began when blood transfusion emerged as a practice, they have expanded exponentially as advances in biomedicine and biotechnology have made it possible to bank and exchange cells and indeed entire organs. As these articles show, the issue has been to balance the potential for benefit for patients, the risk of exploitation of donors, and public health. As the three contributions that follow demonstrate, the human-product-banking industry challenges notions of what is good, of what constitutes a commodity, of how to value intangible goods, and of the nature of the gift.


HIV physician and medical anthropologist. As both a practitioner and researcher, he is concerned with the relationship between science, politics, and practice in global health. His current work focuses on molecular epidemiology, global health, and social theory. He practices at the Clinique médicale l’Actuel and in the Emergency Department at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal (Canada). He is associate professor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Montreal and heads the chair in Anthropology and Global Health at the College of Global Studies in Paris. He is the author of The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS; the coauthor, with Margaret Lock, of An Anthropology of Biomedicine, and also the co-editor, with Jennifer Klot, of The Fourth Wave: Violence, Gender, Culture, and HIV in the 21st Century, as well as numerous articles in biomedical and anthropological journals.

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