Issue 46 / 26 November 2012

BACK in the 1860s, Mrs Isabella Beeton wrote in her Book of Household Management about the necessary qualities of the wet nurse:

The age, if possible, should not be less than twenty nor exceed thirty years, with the health sound in every respect, and the body free from all eruptive disease or local blemish. The best evidence of a sound state of health will be found in the woman’s clear open countenance, the ruddy tone of the skin, the full, round, and elastic state of the breasts, and especially in the erectile, firm condition of the nipple, which, in all unhealthy states of the body, is pendulous, flabby, and relaxed.”

Today, most of us would feel more than a little discomfort at the idea of breastfeeding being outsourced in this way, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think debates about commodification of the human body are a thing of the past.

At the extreme end of the spectrum are websites offering human kidneys in return for payments that reportedly top US$100 000 (not that the original donor is likely to get much of that).

Most of us would, I think, see such practices as unambiguously wrong, given the substantial risks to donors and the clear potential for exploitation of poor and vulnerable people.

In other areas of our lives, though, we accept commodification of the human body as a necessary evil or even as something positive.

Few object to beautiful men and women selling images of themselves to promote the fashion industry and, as a society, we accept it is better that prostitution is legal and regulated to protect those who work in the industry and promote public health.

We tend to have a very different attitude when it comes to commodifying actual body parts or tissues, although the ethical distinction is not always clear. Is it worse, on an ethical level, to pay somebody for donating blood than to pay them for sex?

Nowhere is the debate livelier than when it comes to reproductive services such as commercial surrogacy and the trade in eggs and sperm.

Payment for human gametes is not allowed in Australia, but in many countries, including the US, eggs and sperm can be bought from a catalogue, allowing prospective parents to select donors based on factors such as ethnic origin, religion, level of education or personal interests (though not, as far as I’m aware, the condition of their nipples).

The UK hasn’t opted for that level of commercialisation, but it did earlier this year increase the maximum compensation paid to egg donors from ₤250 (A$385) to ₤750 (A$1155), resulting in a reported surge in donations, a rise one newspaper ascribed to the economic recession afflicting that country.

A desperate shortage of altruistic donors means many Australian couples engage in “reproductive tourism”, purchasing eggs or sperm and having the resulting embryos implanted overseas.

It’s hard to get actual numbers on this but, anecdotally, the practice seems to be on the rise. It could be argued that one result of this ban on payments is to transfer the trade to other jurisdictions where there may be less regulation to protect either buyers or sellers.

The potential for exploitation is very real — and even more so when it comes to commercial surrogacy — but these issues are not going away as biotechnology offers ever-increasing potential for commodification of the human body and its products.

The age of the wet nurse may not be over after all.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.


POSTSCRIPT: Mrs Beeton’s general prescriptions for the wet nurse provide a possible alternative explanation for the nurse’s “ruddy” complexion. The recommendations for a nutritious diet included: half a pint of stout with a Reading biscuit at 11am, a good dinner with a pint of porter at 1pm, half a pint of stout with another biscuit about 8 pm and a pint of porter with supper around 10 pm. I imagine both baby and nurse slept like logs.

Posted 26 November 2012

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One thought on “Jane McCredie: Body parts for sale

  1. Tom Ruut says:

    Kerry Packer paid $5mill for a kidney!

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