Saturday, February 28, 2009

You don't really own your own body!

Have you ever considered if you owned your body? No, I don't mean whether you had the right to be free: to go wherever, to express yourself in any which way, to live your life any way you wish. I'm talking about real ownership over your body, as if were an asset, just like that nice watch on your wrist.

Accountants tell us that there are two types of assets: tangible and intangible. My body is certainly tangible; caress me in the right way and I'll get goosebumps, pinch me and I'll yelp, prick me and I'll bleed. Our bodies are real, and perceptible by the senses -- both by our own, but also by those of others. So, like any tangible asset, our bodies have value, monetary value. We can unlock our bodies' value in many ways; by working, for example. This is because human bodies are in limited supply at any particular location (in some places more so than others); they are a commodity, something that can be turned in to a commercial advantage.

But wait, it's not so simple. If one owns something, one can lease out its use (in the case of a human body, this is equivalent to having a job and being paid for it), but one can also sell that thing outright, or parts of it. For example, if I own a big piece of land I can subdivide it into parcels and sell a few of them individually. The same can't be done with our bodies, however. There are laws in most places that would disallow me from selling one of my organs (if I so desired). Legally, this impinges on my ownership rights over my own body. There are very good reasons for these restrictions, as they protect the potential exploitation of the poor, the uneducated, not to mention the intoxicated! However, it causes a legal paradox. Ownership invokes property rights, and inherent in those are the right to transfer those rights. I supposedly own my own body, but I don't have the right to transfer ownership of parts of my body to anyone else?

Selling organs is actually only a special case, since generally we require most of our organs to keep living. But what if I wanted to sell just a few of my cells to a research laboratory for them to culture? Let's say I had some very rare disease, or a particularly interesting phenotype (observable characteristics); many labs would be interested in using my cells in their pre-clinical experiments. Shouldn't I have the right to some compensation? Furthermore, they may get a payback down the road if their research is successful. All other material "suppliers" are paid. So, why is it that donation of body cells to labs or biobanks is the only option? Is it because body cells are diploid (have two sets of every chromosome)? I jest of course, but in many places (though not Canada) I could sell my sperm, which are haploid (have only one set of every chromosome), and a woman could sell her ova. What an odd situation!

The unclarity of body ownership rights is not limited to cells and organs. Let's even ignore them altogether as it's not strictly required in the definition of a commodity that it has to be subdividable. Sadly, even when we consider the body as a whole, there's still more to make us question our ownership over oneself. In many places on the planet I'm unable to perform certain services (e.g., prostitution), and in most (if not all?) countries I can't sign away all of my work rights, current and future, in exchange for money -- i.e., I can't voluntarily become a slave. Also, I can only chose to donate my body to medicine after my death, I can't be compensated for this.

Ignoring the social and ethical implications of what I've discussed (for example, society benefits greatly through free organ donation after death), it's clear that nothing is clear! Certainly, one shouldn't naively boast of ownership over one's own body, as it's not really true. It remains questionable whether individuals own their intact bodies, let alone the pieces of them that could be excised or extracted.

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