Two academics sound the alarm against an invasion of the body snatchers.
Andrews (Illinois Inst. of Technology) and Nelkin (New York Univ.) find mischief afoot in hospitals, morgues, and laboratories across the land. In an account sure to shock—and to generate considerable controversy—they argue that the market for human tissue and genetic material has created an environment in which organs, blood, and DNA are routinely stolen and sold for profit, usually without the knowledge of the original “donor.” Their frightening depiction of arrogant researchers and scientists shows many of these supposed professionals disregarding the humanity of their subjects, often with the tacit consent of the government and major universities. Valuable as this may be as an exposé, however, it is seriously flawed as a policy paper. There is certainly merit to the authors’ contention that the market is an inappropriate mechanism for regulating the use of human tissue, but the presentation of that argument is questionable. Andrews (The Clone Age, 1999) and Nelkin (The DNA Mystique, 1995) often resort to scare tactics to press for reforms. For instance, they harp on the courts’ reluctance to call the unauthorized taking of body parts “theft” but underplay the legal reasoning behind that decision, barely acknowledging that remedies are available in tort, contract, and equity law. And their analysis of patent, property, and insurance issues has gaping holes. They fail to explain why anyone would undertake risky research in the absence of the incentives provided by royalties and patents, why the insurance industry would be more efficient in the absence of predictive genetic information, and how a property regime in which individuals had inalienable property rights in their own bodies would work, given that such nontransferable rights would be valueless. Finally, the narrative is frustratingly repetitive, and broad statements are too often supported by bare footnotes that cite only secondary sources.
A chilling account, but Andrews and Nelkin’s Luddite tendencies are as worrisome as the abuses they document.