Here’s a business model for you: (1) you have a highly-technical specialty with very few competitors, and (2) better yet, federal law dictates that the materials you use will be provided to you at zero cost. That’s the business model that biotech firms such as LifeCell Corp. are using to make money hand over fist. (LifeCell brought in the tidy sum of $140.6 M last year.)

So how is it that these biotech firms are profiting from our bodies while we get no compensation? The answer is fairly simple. The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) of 1984 made it illegal for individuals to sell their body parts. This law might be comforting for ethical reasons. After all, we don’t like the idea of people hawking their organs like used cars. But, as with any law, we should be aware of its unintended consequences, one of which is the apparent windfall for ambitious biotech firms.

Those who support NOTA will argue two things. First, they’ll suggest that a donor-based system is the best way to meet the serious life and death health concerns of those who need organ transplants. This argument seems fairly naive when you look at the services these biotech companies, whose customers often rely on human tissue for ever-important procedures such as lip implants. The second tack NOTA proponents will take is the classic slippery-slope argument: creating a property right in one’s body parts will result in greed, exploitation, and unsafe practices. A look around the biotech field makes it pretty obvious that avarice is already afoot– it’s now just a question of who can share in the profits. And, as for the safety argument, we (and all those participating in overseas black markets) would all be a lot better off if we create an open, regulated market for human tissue.

Kerry Howley, writing for the LA Times puts it nicely:

“Saner rules would treat the human body as the increasingly valuable property it is, allowing potential donors to will the value of their bodies as they do the rest of their assets. At the very least, donors should know they’re giving to a system that will sell their parts, not a charity that funnels them to those in need.”

This misnomer– the idea that this is an area of charity, not of big business– is what keeps our system of mandatory donations alive. We think it crass to sell our body parts, especially to nonprofits who are trying to save lives. But when the veil is lifted, and we start to see the growing cadre of biotechs getting rich off our bodies, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask: where’s our cut?

I will admit that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this issue. I haven’t discussed the ethics, or for that matter the economics, of creating property rights in human tissue. Am I way off base in arguing what I’ve argued? Are there serious risks I’m overlooking?

Daniel Corbett

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