Stateside: When body parts become commodities

Nov 28, 2012

For some, the idea of body parts functioning as units of exchange is unsettling.

But for Dr. Adam Lutzker, the concept is one worth investigating. Lutzker teaches at the University of Michigan- Flint, where he recently gave a lecture entitled “Human Body Parts as Commodities.”

Born from a teaching strategy used to spark his students’ attention, the lecture challenges what we view as viable commodities.

“A commodity is anything that is produced for profit and bought and sold. With a commodity, we tolerate the fact that not everyone will get them. This was the debate- should things be treated as commodities? Should they be treated as rights?” said Lutzker.

He insists, however, there is ultimately no right answer to these questions. Lutzker invites students to thoroughly investigate commodities and the morals we attach to them. By doing this, he says, one learns much about our society.  

Take for instance, peoples’ willingness to donate blood for free. Born out of a sense of morality, one gives blood without the desire to receive financial compensation.

“It was a social, moral issue. If you give something as gifts, it’s part of an ongoing social relationship. It’s the sharing ethic that we teach people in kindergarten,” said Lutzker.

The notion of free will is important when assessing various exchanges.

“One of the reasons we think market exchanges are usually morally non-problematic is because we think they’re voluntary exchanges between people. The more we think about people being coerced into an exchange, the less it feels like a morally-good thing to us,” said Lutzker.

However controversial the idea, one must remember that organ transplants were once also scandalous.

“What’s counted as a commodity has changed dramatically over time. If you go back more than 500 years ago, even things like land and labor tended not to be commodities for sale,” said Lutzker.

-Cameron Stewart

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