Commodification Arguments for the Legal Prohibition of Organ Sale

Health Care Analysis 8 (2):189-201 (2000)
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The commercial trading of human organs, along withvarious related activities (for example, advertising)was criminalised throughout Great Britain under theHuman Organ Transplants Act 1989.This paper critically assesses one type of argumentfor this, and similar, legal prohibitions:commodification arguments.Firstly, the term `commodification' is analysed. Thiscan be used to refer to either social practices or toattitudes. Commodification arguments rely on thesecond sense and are based on the idea that having acommodifying attitude to certain classes of thing(e.g. bodies or persons) is wrong. The commodifyingattitude consists of three main elements: denial ofsubjectivity, instrumentality, and fungibility.Secondly, in the light of this analysis, the claimthat organ sale involves commodifying the human bodyis examined. This claim is found to be plausible butinsufficient to ground an argument against organ sale,because the very same commodifying attitude is likelyto be present in cases of (unpaid) organ donation. Itis also argued that commodifying bodies per semay not be wrong.Thirdly, the view that organ sale involvescommodifying persons is examined. Although this andthe claim that it is wrong to commodify persons areprobably true, there is – it is argued – littlereason to regard organ sale as worse in this respectthan other widely accepted practices, such as thebuying and selling of labour.The conclusion is that although commodification is auseful ethical concept and although commodificationarguments may sometimes be successful, thecommodification argument against organ sale is notpersuasive. This is not to say, though, that thereare no arguments for prohibition – simply that thisparticular justificatory strategy is flawed



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Stephen Wilkinson
Lancaster University

References found in this work

Objectification.Martha C. Nussbaum - 1995 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 24 (4):249-291.
The value of life.John Harris - 1985 - Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
The Value of Life.John Harris - 1985 - Mind 95 (380):533-535.
Is women's labor a commodity?Elizabeth S. Anderson - 1990 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 19 (1):71-92.
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