Recently, an Indian woman named Premila Vaghela, age 36, died when she gave birth prematurely. Although she carried the fetus for eight months, Vaghela wasn’t considered the mother of the child, who survived. She was merely a paid “gestational carrier” — the dehumanizing term used for surrogate mothers in the IVF industry — who rented her uterus to a Western couple. That decision resulted in her own two children having to grow up without their mother, even as the happy new mom took her own baby home.
The commercialization of women’s uteruses in India — a big business there — is only one example of what I call “biological colonialism.” These days, instead of whole nations colonizing other countries in order to seize their natural wealth, an individual “colonialist” exploits a destitute and powerless person to enhance his or her own health or happiness. Indeed, the living human body is quickly becoming one of the world’s most valuable commercial commodities.
The 2009 book Larry’s Kidney, by Danial Asa Rose, recounts another tragic tale of biological colonialism. Rose’s cousin Larry needed a new kidney. Rather than wait in line like everyone else, Larry flew to China with his cousin to buy one on the black market. After a series of mishaps and complications, Larry got his new blood filter. Oh joy for Larry!
But what about the “donor”? Organs sold in China are mostly taken from political or criminal prisoners (perhaps including persecuted Falun Gong practitioners) who are tissue-typed and then executed. In all likelihood, the person from whom Larry’s new kidney was extracted was killed in order to provide Larry’s life-giving kidney, and the broker received a big payday.
Many in the West, perhaps due to a sense of entitlement, are blind to the exploitation inherent in biological-colonialist transactions. In fact, the practice of buying kidneys in the developing world has reached such predatory levels that some governments have passed laws to thwart the trade. In Pakistan, for example, so many sellers of their own kidneys have experienced serious health problems that the parliament outlawed all organ buying and live-organ donations (other than to close family members). For the same reason, the Philippines has legally prohibited non-citizens from undergoing kidney-transplant surgeries in the country.
The extent of the organ trade isn’t fully known, but it is clearly a big business. The World Health Organization recently reported that there are 10,000 black-market kidney transplants each year. It’s clear that the corruption bred by biological colonialism extends well beyond the criminal class — medical professionals, for instance, are necessary participants in the transaction. And there’s a lot of money to spread around: A “donor” may receive $5,000 for his organ, and the buyer may pay up to $200,000.
Sometimes, biological colonialism takes the form of “outsourcing ethics” (to use a term coined by bioethicist William Hurlbut): employing on human subjects in developing countries research methods that people would never countenance in the United States or Europe. Last year, the Independent reported that underage girls were recruited without parental consent for use in dangerous immunization experiments in India. Some of the girls died before the government stepped in to stop the project.