Informed Consent, Body Property, and Self-Sovereignty

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 44 (3):437-444 (2016)
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Abstract

Recent cases involving biosamples taken from indigenous tribes and newborn babies reveal the emptiness of informed consent. This venerable doctrine often functions as a charade, a collective fiction which thinly masks the uncomfortable fact that the subjects of human research are not actually afforded full information regarding the types of research that may be contemplated, nor do they provide meaningful consent. But if informed consent fails to provide adequate protection to the donors of biological materials, why not turn to principles of property law? Property is power, yet current law permits everyone except for those who donate biological materials to possess property rights. The reluctance to invoke property probably stems from fears of resurrecting slavery and the commodification of human beings. But ironically, avoidance of property transforms the subjects of human research into objects that can be owned only by others, resulting in new forms of oppression and exploitation. Human research subjects are autonomous individuals who should not only possess the power to contribute their biological materials, but also the right to help control the course of research, and to share in the resulting benefits or profits. Conferring body property might enable research subjects to regain power and a measure of self-sovereignty.

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