Andrew Kimbrell

(New York, Harper Collins, 1993, pp 305, $29.50)

Selling ourselves piece by piece

In The Human Body Shop, Andrew Kimbrell has taken on the kind of challenge that would send most writers running for an ice pack and a darkened room.  Not only has he set out to explain advances in medical and biological technologies to the non-scientist, but he discusses the biotech revolution in a historical context as an inevitable consequence of free-market economic theory.

Pro-lifers who try to keep up to date in the myriad of issues surrounding reproductive technology will appreciate the succinct summary of the current status in the United States of such concerns as surrogate motherhood, in-vitro fertilization, freezing embryos, and the eugenics aspects of prenatal screening.  Although this book is not identified as coming from a pro-life perspective, the author argues strongly against the tendency of medicine and science to steamroller over traditional concepts of the sacredness of human life.

It is refreshing to realize that a mainstream publisher has the nerve to publish an author who writes as follows on the subject of organ transplants from anencephalic babies:

“Despite the views of many in the medical community, definitions of death cannot be separated from moral and ethical judgments.  Many see those who are ‘higher’ brain dead as little more than efficient sources of organs and as potential tools in biomedical research.  They do not view these humans as alive or meaningful.  But if brain activity is not the only criterion for respect due to humans who are still breathing and otherwise functioning, then neither those in the so-called vegetative state nor anencephalic babies are dead.

No physician should be allowed to vivisect them for organs.  They cannot be treated solely as means.  They are still ends in themselves.”

In chapters on blood gathering, ova and sperm, and organ harvesting, Kimbrell details the way in which these body parts have become commodities for sale in the United States.  Rare blood groups can command p to $6,000 a pint; sperm for $50 a donation and ova at $2,000.

The international trade in human organs affects the poor in the third world; a kidney can fetch from $10,000 to $40,000.

Kimbrell has investigated the murky and secretive world of fetal harvesting to expose the highly profitable industry of marketing aborted fetuses.  The extent of this industry is unknown, even to government investigators, but in the U.S. there are at least half a dozen identified fetal-tissue providers.

The most sought after tissue is that from second trimester abortions, and there has to be an extremely close connection between the abortion itself and the collection of the cadaver, as time is of the essence in collecting still-living body parts.  Kimbrell reports that research into the use of fetal tissue and organs is at the forefront of the biotech revolution; scientists are not interested in debating any clinical consideration at all, they find the possibilities too exciting.

And there is also the fact that a growing demand for the aborted unborn will lead to more women rationalizing their decision to abort.  Kimbrell points out,  “…regardless of one’s position on abortion, there exists the potential of fetal transplants acting as an incentive for elective abortions and being a coercive element in a woman’s decision on the method and manner of abortion.  This would be especially true if abortion clinics openly advocated fetal donation in their counseling and in their consent forms.”

In case you are rapidly reaching the conclusion that science has gone too far, The Human Body Shop will convince you that there is much more to come.  Kimbrell explains the current state of gene technology and the implications of such schemes as the Human Genome Project, cloning and genetic engineering.

Andrew Kimbrell believes that this marketing of the body, and of life itself, must be stopped.  Society has to revive its former understanding of the body as meaningful and sacred: “human beings should not be used as mere means to ends.”  He calls the first “the body shop future vision” and the second, “the empathetic future vision,” explaining, “the body shop future vision permits the sale of organs and fetal parts, subcontracts out having a baby, creates a breeder class to sell tissues, organs, and reproductive elements, and allows us to change the definition of life and death to suit the requirements of body parts demand.  It also envisions a eugenic future in which the unfit are selected out before birth or genetically engineered after it.”

Kimbrell suggests a series of “biopolicies” to begin the empathetic future vision, none of which would be contrary to a pro-life position.  However, a couple of his policies would not be stringent enough to satisfy pro-life demands.  He proposes, for example, that there be no experimentation on embryos, and presses for “maximum attempts to see that frozen embryos are given a chance at life.”  He does not seem to oppose the practice of freezing embryos.  He would limit the practice of prenatal genetic screening to detection of life-threatening disease; which leaves open the possibility that he would view abortion as an ethical response to eliminating the disabled pre-born.

The Human Body Shop is not an easy book to read, however, Andrew Kimbrell has a very reader-friendly style which makes complex scientific issues more accessible to the non-scientist.  Nor is it an easy book to read for those who do care about the pre-born and the medically vulnerable, for some of the experiments discussed should have remained as science fiction fantasy, not become science fact.  Even though the research described mainly takes place in the United States, it would be naïve to think that Canadian scientists feel and behave differently to their counterparts south of the border.

When our Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies finally releases its report (due in November), we will be able to judge for ourselves just how far the marketing of human beings has spread into Canada.  We may well be shocked.