Contested Commodities: Reframing the Debate on Financial Incentives in the Supply of Genetic Materials

Friday, April 4, 2008 (All day)

Recent tissue and organ scandals expose the fault lines in human biological supply and demand in the United States. These scandals spread across the front pages of newspapers, reading like plots from B grade horror movies, revealing bizarre happenings at funeral homes, crematoriums, and even medical schools. The stories follow similar trajectories: body parts robbed from funeral homes and pillaged for parts; medical schools selling cadavers; and more recently the claim that a doctor hastened the death of a patient to harvest the organs. These narratives are animated by the tremendous demand for human biological supply and suppliers resorting to crafty—and often clandestine measures—to procure them. With over one million allograft surgeries taking place each year in the United States, supply must come from somewhere.

Yet, recent body part scandals obscure the other contested and equally commoditized spaces mapped on the human body. Wombs, ova, sperm, embryos, and children represent additional realms of human biological commodification. Here, the essences of life—the building blocks—become regularly and intensely subjected to market norms. What contributes to the differences in how these spheres (organs vs. ova and the like) are perceived in the common view, regulated by legislatures, or reflected on by the judiciary has much to do with our perceptions and normative understandings of the human body.

This conference is a forum for picking apart what contributes to our understanding and determinations as to what is appropriately commodifiable and what is not. It considers the tremendous demands for substances like organs, as well as information demands that can only be satisfied by researching and unpacking the human body. Conference participants consider the viability and ethics of organ commodification, baby markets, patents based as human cell lines, as well as how tax systems might handle such questions.

The conference papers consider how we might begin to create frameworks that move the discussion about incentives for human biological materials beyond hypothetical treatments in the literature to test them at the state level and federal levels.

Keynote Address [Download: .mp3 | .mov]

  • Richard Epstein: In Cautious Praise of the Commodification of Genetic Materials

Introduction + Framing and Legal History [Download: .mp3]

  • Nevin Gewertz, Commentator
  • Ray Madoff: The Body in American Law: An Historical Perspective

Organ Markets [Download: .mp3]

  • Lior Strahilevitz, Commentator
  • Benjamin Hippen: Organ Sales and Moral Travails: Lessons from the Living Kidney Vendor Program in Iran
  • Lainie Ross: Markets Are Not an Ethical Solution to the Organ Shortage

Baby Markets [Download: .mp3]

  • Lee Fennell, Commentator
  • Debora Spar: Free Markets, Free Choice? A Market Approach to Reproductive Rights
  • José Gabilondo: Heterosexuality Offspring Preference: Pricing and Policy Implications
  • Mary Anne Case: For Love or Money: Sex Discrimination in Compensation for the Supply of Genetic Materials
  • Kim Krawiec: The Politics of Parenthood: Altruism and Intermediation in the Market for Babies

Patents & Nature [Download: .mp3]

  • Jake Linford, Commentator
  • Mary Simmerling: Waste Not, Want Not?: Consent, Compensation, and the Business of Medical Research
  • Stephen Hilgartner: Intellectual Property and the Politics of Emerging Technology: Inventors, Citizens, and Powers to Shape the Future
  • Harriet Washington: Tissue Colonies: How Medical Distinctiveness Has Driven Profitable Wonders from the Body of the “Other”
  • Michele Goodwin: Minimalism and Fuzzy Signals: The Judiciary and The Role of Law in Biotech Cases

Spheres of Law: Tort, Crime & Tax [Download: .mp3]

  • Anup Malani, Commentator
  • Song Richardson: Insult, Domination and Retribution: Punishing Bad Medical Actors
  • Martha Ertman: Commodifying Genetic Material: An Argument for Hybridity
  • Dorothy Brown: Contested Commodities: What’s Tax Policy Got to Do with It?


Richard A. Epstein
Lee Fennell
Mary Anne Case
Anup Malani