Initial Quick Thoughts on the Announcement of the Birth Through Mitochondrial Replacement in Mexico

The science media is abuzz about the birth of a child using mitochondrial replacement techniques in Mexico to Jordanian parents at the hands of NY Doctors. A few quick reactions (I am heading to this unrelated NAS/IOM Committee meeting tomorrow evening so may have some more thoughts when that settles down).

  • This is the first time this particular technique has been used to produce a live, but I am not sure from an ethical standpoint the arguments are all that different. That said, for those deeply interested in the more philosophical question of harm to children and the propriety of best interests argument in light of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (my take here and here) it may matter whether mitochondrial replacement is done through Pronuclear Transfer or Maternal Spindle Transfer as argued quite well here.
  • The fact that the doctors are from New York, the Patients are from Jordan, and the procedure took place in Mexico is not insignificant. This is a form of medical tourism, a topic I wrote a book on, most similar to cases of fertility and stem cell therapy tourism I cover in the latter half of the book. Absent making domestic prohibitions extraterritorial, something that I argue is permitted by international law and justified in some instances, there is very little that a home country can do about this. The going abroad is likely in part at least a function of some U.S. laws on the subject Eli Adashi and I wrote about for JAMA prohibiting FDA from considering approval of the technology.
  • As I wrote on this blog in February in relation to the IOM report “whatever the US policy in a world where medical tourism is possible and other countries adopt their own systems, so long as not everyone adopts the approach of the US some of these problems will manifest no matter what. So this is about harm reduction not harm avoidance.” This was a bit quicker than even I thought, but is not surprising. More generally if your concern about MRT is harm to offspring and transmission to future generations, people born elsewhere through the technology will inevitably enter the United States and/or marry, and procreate with U.S. citizens who themselves become U.S. citizens. To sound a bit X-Files about it “THEY WILL BE AMONG US!” This is a great example of the limits of unilateral regulation in a world of globalized health care.
  • Interesting that it was a male birth. This may be coincidence or in keeping with the IOM recommendation that only male embryos be transferred (to get rid of germ line transmission). Eli Adashi and I raised some ethical questions in Nature about whether that was an ethically problematic form of sex selection or not but in the reporting I have seen so far it has not been clear that they used only male embryos on purpose.
  • I wish we could stop calling it in the media “Three Parent IVF” or “Three Parent Reproduction.” That assumes the answer to what I think of as a subtle and interesting set of questions — is the mitochondrial donor a “parent” and what sense of the word do we mean.

More soon, I hope!

Kidneys and Livers, Made to Order?

By Seán Finan

Last week, Organovo might just have revolutionised the pharmaceutical industry. The San Diego-based company specialises in producing structures that mimic the behaviours and functions of human tissue, using 3D bioprinting. They announced last week that they were beginning the commercial manufacture and sale of their ExVive Kidney. The product models the proximal tubule of the human kidney and holds significant promise for clinical trials of new drugs. The commercialization of the ExVive Kidney follows the release of ExVive Human Liver Tissue in 2014.

In essence, Organovo is using 3D printing technology to produce samples of “human” tissue that can be used to test the toxicity of new drugs. The printing process, known as 3D bioprinting, involves extracting human cells, culturing them and suspending them in a solution. The resulting “bioink” is fed through a modified 3D printer. Layer by layer, the printer deposits cells, producing a mass with a similar structure and density to a sample of, for example, human liver. Just like “organ on a chip” technology, these synthetic liver and kidney samples present significant advantages over traditional clinical testing.

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NIH Announces Plans for new Rules for Funding Chimera Research (Human-Animal Mixtures)

As reported by Science, today the NIH announced plans to lift a preemptive year long moratorium on funding chimera research – that which mixes human and animal cells, often at the embryonic stage.

Here is a snippet from the Science article about the new proposed NIH process:

According to two notices released today, NIH is proposing to replace the moratorium with a new agency review process for certain chimera experiments. One type involves adding human stem cells to nonhuman vertebrate embryos through the gastrulation stage, when an embryo develops three distinct layers of cells that then give rise to different tissues and organs. The other category is studies that introduce human cells into the brains of postgastrulation mammals (except rodent studies, which won’t need extra review).

These proposed studies will go to an internal NIH steering committee of scientists, ethicists, and animal welfare experts that will consider factors such as the type of human cells, where they may wind up in the animal, and how the cells might change the animal’s behavior or appearance. The committee’s conclusions will then help NIH’s institutes decide whether to fund projects that have passed scientific peer review.

The devil will, of course, be in the details. It will be interesting to see how much NIH takes a more categorical approach as opposed to more case-by-case rule making like in the Institutional Review Board or ESCRO setting. Continue reading

NPRM Symposium: Quick Take on New Analysis of the Comments on the NPRM to Amend the Common Rule (and the Challenge for Bioethics and the Public)

The Council on Governmental Relations (COGR), with support from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), undertook “to review and analyze the 2,186 public comments submitted in response to the 2015 Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects” or “Common Rule” Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

I am going to discuss some highlights of their just released report, but this is far from exhaustive and you should read the whole report.

For the non-cognoscenti this is the most important revision to the rules for U.S. human subjects research since their inception. The report is largely unfavorable to several key proposed rule changes on my first read, but you should read it yourself to make up your own mind.

I’ll share some choice passages from the analysis

The results of our review (Table 2) find significant opposition to most major proposals, with mixed support for mandated use of a single IRB and extending the Common Rule and greater support for the concept of standard security safeguards. In addition, a number of responses suggested that the NPRM is overly complex, poorly written, and not supported by data; highlighted areas that could have a substantial impact on a final rule but were not included in the NPRM (e.g., proposed security safeguards, a consent template, a list of minimal risk studies and a decision tool); and suggested that some of the proposals would adversely affect human health with little perceived benefit.

Turning to Biospecimens, where we had a conference last year that will soon generate a book with MIT press:

The majority of responses, approximately 1,520, addressed one or more of the proposed changes detailed above involving non-identified biospecimens. Of these responses, 94 – 100% of patients and members of the research community, including researchers, universities, medical centers and industry, opposed the changes. Those commenting suggested that the proposed changes will significantly reduce the availability of biospecimens for research, will have a significant negative impact on medical advances, and will adversely affect human health. Per one patient, “I am asking for life saving policy not life ending policies.” From a biorepository, “Respecting autonomy at the expense of patient lives is a significant ethical concern.”

More surprising was their finding that “Among members of the general public, 55% opposed and 45% supported one or more of the major proposed changes related to biospecimens.” (They do a better breakdown of the various sub-constituencies in the report).

Turning to “broad consent” for biospecimen use:

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Planned Parenthood And Fetal Tissue Sale: Manufactured Controversy And The Real Ethical Debate

This new post by I. Glenn Cohen appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

In 2013 the Center for Medical Progress appeared to have secured tax-exempt status for a fake company it set up called Biomax Procurement Services. The company’s “representatives” contacted the non-profit women’s health provider Planned Parenthood staffers and led them into conversations that were secretly recorded. The result, according to their website (as reported by CNN), was “a 30-month-long investigative journalism study by The Center for Medical Progress, documenting how Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted babies.”

The videos were edited down and released slowly in a way designed to paint Planned Parenthood in the worst light. While some have called it a “hoax,” that’s not a word I would use in this case. When I think of great journalistic hoaxes I think of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds (though more recent historical work suggests that the panic it caused may have been mythological). Instead what happened here, I want to suggest, is what I will call a “manufactured controversy.” [..]

Read the full post here.

FDA Announces Draft Guidance That Would Limit Enforcement Discretion for FMT

Yesterday, the FDA announced a new draft guidance regarding its exercise of its enforcement discretion around the investigational new drug (IND) requirements as they apply to fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT.  For almost three years now, the FDA has exercised its enforcement discretion for FMT under a rather permissive set of guidelines, enabling patients to access FMT while companies shepherd a set of products through the clinical trial process.  I recently co-authored an article about the FDA’s regulation of FMT, and I’m concerned about this new guidance, in terms of safety, access, and regulatory clarity.  This is one of the wonkiest posts I’ve written in some time (and that’s saying something), so I’ll endeavor to be as clear as possible.

What is FMT and why is it important? To make a long story short, it’s a poop transplant.  Filtered stool from a healthy donor is transplanted into the gastrointestinal tract of a sick patient.  Although scientists are continuing to explore the use of FMT for a range of indications, we already know that FMT is a startlingly effective treatment for recurrent C. difficile infection.  C. difficile infections have become among the most common hospital-acquired infections in the United States, with more than 450,000 total incident infections annually.  Unfortunately, many of these infections are resistant to antibiotics: with those 450,000 infections came 80,000 recurrences and 29,000 deaths.  But FMT may provide a way forward.  A recent randomized trial of patients with recurrent C. difficile infections was stopped early, when 94% of patients in the FMT group were cured, as compared to roughly 30% of those getting only antibiotics.

How is the FDA involved? In May 2013, the FDA announced that fecal microbiota would be regulated as a drug.  All uses of FMT would therefore need to be part of an IND application, and patients who wanted to be treated with FMT for recurrent C. difficile would need to participate in a clinical trial to do so.  Physicians and scientists responded with concern, arguing that available evidence supporting FMT’s effectiveness as a therapy for recurrent C. difficile infection was too compelling for regulators to restrict its availability to clinical trials.  As such, in July 2013, the FDA announced that it would exercise enforcement discretion when FMT was used to treat patients “with C. difficile infection not responding to standard therapies,” so long as the treating physician obtained informed consent. Continue reading

Does the NAM Recommendation of Sex Selection for Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy Violate the Equal Protection Clause (Part III on my take on the NAM report)

As I said in one of my earlier posts today one of the most interesting parts of the NAM report on mitochondrial replacement therapy was its recommendation that only male embryos be implanted and not female ones. The argument is that this will eliminate the risks of germ-line transmission of anything untoward. I will leave it to others more versed in the risk factors to discuss whether this is an over-reaction (the UK did not adopt this in their recommendation) or reasonable. In the last post I discussed why politically/ethically this may get them in some hot water, but here  I want to raise a different question. Would such a recommendation be unconstitutional?

If FDA were to adopt this rule it would clearly be state action. It seems to be a state-law that favors one gender (males) over another (females) in that only males can be produced in this way. If that is right, under existing Supreme Court precedent it would be judged under “intermediate scrutiny.” To pass intermediate scrutiny, the challenged law must further an important government interest by means that are substantially related to that interest. Would this rule satisfy that test? Continue reading

Breaking News: NAM Releases Report on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (Part II My First Take)

By I. Glenn Cohen

My last post was a summary of the NAM’s Recommendations on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT). Now here is my take on the report. But keep in mind the report was just released and all I could give it was a quick read, so these are really more like initial impressions: Continue reading

Some Commentary on How to Think About Secondary Research with Biospecimens

The public comment period on the NPRM to revise the Common Rule has just closed, and now we wait to see what happens (if anything), and when.  One of the most controversial proposals in the NPRM would require at least broad consent for secondary research with biospecimens (i.e., research on specimens originally collected for another purpose, either clinical care or a different study), regardless of whether those specimens retain identifiers.  This is a substantial change from the status quo, which does not require consent for such research with de-identified specimens.  How should we feel about this status quo, and the proposed change?  My own view is that it’s really not so bad: the risks to individual research participants are quite low, and the current approach facilitates critically important scientific advancement.  There is certainly room for improvement, e.g., to impose punishment on those who would act to re-identify de-identified specimens without permission, to inform the public that such research takes place, and to educate them about its value, perhaps allowing those who still feel very strongly that they prefer not to be included an opportunity to opt-out.  But what has been actually proposed has more problems than what it would replace, and in fact, wouldn’t solve some of those it seems to be a response to.

Rebecca Skloot feels otherwise.  She is the author of a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the origin of one particularly important cell line – HeLa  – derived from cells that had been excised from Ms. Lacks in the course of a 1951 surgery to treat her cancer, and later used for research without her knowledge or permission.  Ms. Lacks was poor, uneducated, and black, and her descendants have also faced more than their fair share of adversity.  Ms. Skloot paints a compelling story of exploitation, but in my opinion, it is much more effective as a narrative about the horrible and enduring legacy of racism in this country than as proof that researchers who conduct secondary research with biospecimens without consent (as permitted under the current regulations, remember) or even without profit-sharing have behaved badly. After all, if individual risks are low and social benefits high – both true – then what’s the problem?  And it is far from clear that specimen sources deserve compensation for no other reason than that their discarded material actually proves valuable to scientists.  Nonetheless, the book has been used as a rallying cry by people from all walks of life who believe that they should be allowed to control whether, and potentially how, their specimens are used for research. Indeed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is probably the single most important development that pushed the proposed revisions to the Common Rule forward, for the first time since they were released in 1991.

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NPRM Symposium: How Should We Think About Whether To Donate Our Leftover, Non-Identified Tissue to Research?

Proposed changes to the federal Common Rule would ask patients for the first time to decide whether to allow their non-identified, leftover tissue to be used for research or thrown away. For that choice to be meaningful, the public needs to be aware of the nature, risks, and benefits of biospecimens research, and of what the proposed changes will—and will not—do. In my latest Forbes essay, “No, Donating Your Leftover Tissue To Research Is Not Like Letting Someone Rifle Through Your Phone,” I consider the power of analogies and other reflections on Rebecca Skloot’s recent New York Times op-ed on the NPRM.

Blog Series on NPRM at PRIM&R’s “Ampersand”

Our colleagues at PRIM&R are hosting a series on “Unpacking the NPRM.” Check it out at their blog Ampersand, or by clicking on the links below!

Monday, 9/21, HLS Health Law Workshop with Jessica Roberts

HLS Health Law Workshop: Jessica Roberts

September 21, 2015 5:00 PM
Hauser Hall, Room 102
Harvard Law School, 1575 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA

Download the paper: “Theories of Genetic Ownership”

Jessica L. Roberts is the Director of the Health Law and Policy Institute and an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center. She specializes in health law, disability law, and genetics and the law. Prior to UH, Professor Roberts was an Associate-in-Law at Columbia Law School and an Adjunct Professor of Disability Studies at the City University of New York. Immediately after law school, she clerked for the Honorable Dale Wainwright of the Texas Supreme Court and the Honorable Roger L. Gregory of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Professor Roberts’ research operates at the intersection of health law and antidiscrimination law. Her scholarship has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Indiana Law Journal, the William and Mary Law Review, the Iowa Law Review, the Minnesota Law Review, the University of Illinois Law Review, the Notre Dame Law Review, the Vanderbilt Law Review, the University of Colorado Law Review, the American Journal of Law and Medicine and the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, among others. Professor Roberts teaches, or has taught, Contracts, Disabilities and the Law, Genetics and the Law, and Health Law Survey. In 2015, she received the university-wide Teaching Excellence Award and the Provost’s Certificate of Excellence. Professor Roberts was named a 2018 Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics.

NPRM Summary from HHS

As Michelle noted, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on human subjects research is out after a long delay. For my (and many Bill of Health bloggers’) view about its predecessor ANPRM, you can check out our 2014 book, Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future.

Here is HHS’s own summary of what has changed and what it thinks is most important:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have announced proposed revisions to modernize, strengthen, and make more effective the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that was promulgated as a Common Rule in 1991.  A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was put on public display on September 2, 2015 by the Office of the Federal Register.  The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators. It is expected that the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015.  There are plans to release several webinars that will explain the changes proposed in the NPRM, and a town hall meeting is planned to be held in Washington, D.C. in October. Continue reading

Long-Awaited Common Rule NPRM Released

It will be published in the Federal Register on September 8 (and comments will be due 90 days thereafter), but it is available now here. It is 519 pages long, though there is an executive summary and a list of the most important changes (which seem to roughly track the ANPRM) at pp. 21-26. Time to put on a pot of coffee, tea, or the caffeinated beverage of your choice.

FDA’s Non-Response Response to My New York Times Op-Ed on Gay Blood Ban

On May 21, along with my frequent co-author Eli Adashi, I published an op-ed in the New York Times raising some questions about FDA’s proposed guidance recommending a ban on taking the blood on any man who has had sex with another man in the past year, or in other words imposing a one year celibacy requirement on gay men if they want to donate blood. This built on our critique last July in JAMA, wherein we argued that FDA’s then-lifetime ban on gay men and MSM donating blood was out of step with science and the practice of our peer countries, as well as potentially unconstitutional.

Thanks to our work, and a concerted effort by public health, medical, and gay rights groups, FDA has finally moved off of that prior policy and recognized that it was unjustified, and discriminatory.

Just to put this in context It took more than 30 years to convince FDA that it was problematic to ban blood donation for a lifetime any man who ever had sex with another man, even if both have repeatedly tested negative for HIV, while it imposed only a one year ban on people who had sex with individuals known to be HIV positive or a sex worker. FDA is appropriately a conservative agency, but on this issue of the lifetime ban its willingness to listen and reconsider has gone beyond conservatism to the point of lunacy. [By the way to be clear, I *love* FDA. I represented them while at the DOJ and have a new book coming out about FDA in the fall. You can think highly of an agency but think they have a bad track record on an issue. This is critique not hater-aide].

Well with that background, one should be not so quick to assume that a move to a one year ban — a de facto lifetime ban for any gay man who is sexually active, even one who is monogamously married with children — is the best policy. To put it bluntly, refusing to change a lifetime ban for such a long period makes me skeptical we should accept a “just trust us” line on their new restrictive policy.

The question we raised in our op-ed was whether FDA had adequately justified retaining a one year ban in light of the evidence from places like South Africa (with a much shorter time period ban), Italy (which does individualized risk assessment instead of stigmatizing all gay men as high risk for disease), etc.

Well FDA responded…sort of … through a NY TImes Letter To the Editor.

Here is what FDA said with my analysis in bold:

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Fundraising and the Delayed Kidney Transplantation: A Loophole in the Ban against Commercialization?

In April, a kidney donation from an unrelated living donor was put on hold in South Portland, Maine. The reason was unusual: the generosity of the community.  In response to an online fundraising for the donor, 768 people contributed over $49,000—well beyond what can reasonably be called “compensation.” The hospital thus had to ask the question: Is the donation procedure in conflict with the law now that the donor stands to profit from it? After initial media coverage, there was no further news about this case. On Monday, however, it was announced on the fundraising page that the transplant is back on track and due to happen in two weeks. Does that mean that we now have a loophole in the ban against commercialization of organs?

The case is unprecedented. There are and have been other online fundraisers to compensate donors. But this is the first time that the unpredictable powers of the internet kicked in (remember the guy who raised $55,000 to make a potato salad?). The law prohibits any monetary payments to organ donors. The situation poses two questions: What should be done in this particular case, and how should fundraising for organ donors be regulated going forward?

It appears that the first question was somehow resolved even though we don’t know how: Did the hospital decide it was not a problem after all, or did the donor agree with the hospital’s reported initial suggestion of donating the “excess” money to some other organization? In either case, what follows remains problematic.

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China stops using executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants

By Lydia Stewart Ferreira

According to the Lancet, China will stop using executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants as of January 1, 2015. After January 1, 2015, “only voluntary donated organs from civilians can be used in transplants.” This decision was officially announced December 3, 2014 by Jiefu Huang, the former vice-Minister of Health at a seminar of China’s Organ Procurement Organization. While China needs to be commended for this government initiative, I find the fact that this initiative takes effect in 2015 quite shocking.

China has one of the largest organ transplant systems in the world, yet it has one of the lowest levels of organ donation – with a rate of 0.6 per 1 million people. In a 2011 Lancet article, Huang and colleagues reported that 65% of transplants in China used organs from deceased donors, more than 90% of whom were executed prisoners. The Lancet also reports that since 1984, it has been legal in China to harvest the organs of executed prisoners with the consent of the prisoner or their family. It was not until 2007 that China implemented its first legal regulatory framework for the oversight of their organ transplant system. In 2013, China went on to establish a national electronic organ allocation system.

Clearly, China has had a government endorsed organ procurement system. However, this procurement system has been internationally condemned by medical, scientific and human rights organizations. There were concerns about coercion, exploitation, undue inducement, non-existent consent, unjustified paternalism and the corruption of organ allocation. This organ procurement system used by China was legal under Chinese law. It is not clear to what extent illegal organ procurement – through transplant tourism and the black market sale of organs – was and is also taking place in China.

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Two forthcoming publications on (1) European Stem Cell Patenting, and (2) IP issues in Biobanking

I am happy to announce the following publications:

1) Minssen, Timo and Nordberg, A., The Evolution of the CJEU’s Case Law on Stem Cell Patents: Context, Outcome and Implications of Case C‑364/13 International Stem Cell Corporation (March 11, 2015). Available at SSRN:  (under review for journal publication)


On 18th December 2014, the CJEU rendered its’ much-anticipated decision in C‑364/13 International Stem Cell Corporation v Comptroller General of Patents (ISCC). Qualifying its’ earlier ruling in Brüstle v. Greenpeace (Brüstle) with regard to non-fertilised human ova stimulated by parthenogenesis, the Court held that in order to constitute a ‘human embryo’ – and thus to be unpatentable under the EU Biotechnology Directive – the stimulated ovum must have the “inherent capacity to develop into a human being”. This would allow patents on innovative parthenotes which had not been genetically modified to achieve totipotent capabilities. Hence the judgment establishes a crucial limitation of the broad interpretation of “human embryos” in Brüstle, where the CJEU held that parthenotes are covered by the term “human embryo” since they are “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being”. The ISCC decision is to be welcomed since it provides an ethically justifiable leeway for patenting and offers reasonable support to the commercial viability of European cell therapy research. Yet, ISCC’s impact still depends on national implementations and only applies to certain hESC cells. Thus, further clarifications would be helpful concerning other non-totipotent hESCs.

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How Should the FDA Regulate Fecal Transplantation Safely and Effectively?

Last week’s issue of the New Yorker featured a terrific article about fecal microbiota transplantation, or FMT.  Much of the article focused on OpenBiome, a nonprofit stool bank spun off from MIT that screens donors, processes samples, and ships them to hospitals around the country.  For those who are unfamiliar with FMT, it is a startlingly effective treatment for recurrent C. difficile infection.  C. diff infections have become among the most common hospital-acquired infections in the United States, causing more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths annually.  And unfortunately, many of these infections are resistant to antibiotics, with resistance rates rising rapidly.  But FMT may provide a way forward: a recent randomized trial (antibiotics versus antibiotics plus FMT) was stopped early, when 94% of patients in the FMT group were cured, as compared to roughly 30% of those in the antibiotics groups.

Coincidentally, I’ve been working with OpenBiome over the past few months on an interesting question that the New Yorker article touched on only briefly: how should the FDA regulate FMT to best ensure its safety and efficacy?  At present, the FDA is proposing to regulate FMT as a biologic drug.  However, many (including OpenBiome’s co-founder, Mark Smith) have argued that it ought to be regulated like human tissue, which from a scientific standpoint it resembles more closely than it does a small molecule drug, given the challenge of characterizing stool’s active ingredients and providing consistency across batches.  OpenBiome’s Policy Director, Carolyn Edelstein, and I are currently working on a paper examining the pluses and minuses of the FDA’s current approach.  I want to briefly summarize a few key points of our paper here, but essentially we argue that classifying FMT as a drug is simultaneously underregulatory and overregulatory.  Our primary goal is to ensure that patients have access to safe, effective treatments – and that means the FDA should be more involved in regulating some aspects of FMT, and less involved in others.

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What’s Wrong with Selling Organs (and a Taxonomy of Taboo Trade/Commodification Objections)

By I. Glenn Cohen

Many people – non-philosophers especially, but some philosophers as well – loosely use the term “commodification” as an objection to a “taboo trade”. By “taboo trade” I mean the sale of a good or service such as an organ, sperm, egg, surrogacy, prostitution, etc.

This is unhelpful since it means that people often talk past each other and substitute rhetoric for reason.

In my own work I have tried to disentangle various separate objections falling within this family. This is also important in determining what, if any, form of regulation might help combat or minimize the ethical concern. It is also important because it helps us see that some forms of regulation might improve matters as to one of the ethical objections while at the same time worsen matters as to another one of the ethical objections.

For this blog post I wanted to share my taxonomy of ethical objections drawn from a recent paper I did on objections to buying and selling organs and the potential ways various regulatory tools can and cannot be used to deal with them: Regulating the Organ Market: Normative Foundations for Market Regulation, 77 Law and Contemporary Problems (forthcoming Nov 2014)  In the paper itself it is set out more formally with supporting citations, here I present just excerpts more informally.

While I illustrate the taxonomy of arguments using the buying and selling of organs, in fact the same categories can be used for any taboo trade (prostitution, selling eggs, commercial surrogacy, etc):

1. Corruption

The basic idea behind what I have elsewhere called the “corruption” argument is that allowing a practice to go forward will do violence to or denigrate our views of how goods are properly valued. This argument is sometimes labeled the “commodification” argument, but because that term is also used in a way that encompasses some of the other arguments I discuss below, I prefer the more specific label of “corruption.” The American Medical Association, among others, has voiced this kind of objection in the domestic organ-sale context, suggesting paying kidney donors would “dehumanize society by viewing human beings and their parts as mere commodities.”

We can distinguish two subcategories of this objection, which I have elsewhere called “consequentialist” and “intrinsic” corruption. “Consequentialist corruption” justifies intervention to prevent changes to our attitudes or sensibilities that will occur if the practice is allowed —for example, that we will “regard each other as objects with prices rather than as persons.” This concern is contingent and to be successful must rely on empirical evidence, in that it depends on whether attitudes actually change. By contrast, “intrinsic corruption” is an objection that focuses on the “inherent incompatibility between an object and a mode of valuation.” The wrongfulness of the action is completed at the moment of purchase irrespective of what follows; the intrinsic version of the objection obtains even if the act remains secret or has zero effect on anyone’s attitudes.

2. Crowding Out  Continue reading