Bodies for sale

Dec 22, 2010 By Lauren McFalls
Bodies for sale
New law professor Kara Swanson is writing a book about how the human anatomy has been made into properties. Credit: David Leifer

For some people, intellectual property is about faster computers and better apps. But for Kara Swanson, a new professor at the Northeastern University School of Law, it’s about body products — literally.

She’s writing a book, “Banking on the Body,” that looks at how human anatomy — everything from to kidneys — has been made into properties that can be bought and sold on the market.

“The idea that we would take bits of our bodies and say they’re property that can be traded on world markets for x amount of money like oil or hog futures is repellant and upsetting,” she says. “But the process of taking something that isn’t usually regarded as property and making it into property through law and other institutions is similar to the idea of taking an intangible idea and making it into property, which is the role of law.”

To write the book, Swanson, who earned a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University, is drawing on her doctoral dissertation, “Body Banks: A History of Milk Banks, Blood Banks and Sperm Banks in the United States.” Before coming to Northeastern, Swanson was the Berger-Howe Visiting Fellow in Legal History at Harvard Law School and associate professor at Earle Mack School of Law, Drexel University. 

The term bank in this context was first used to describe the collection and storage of blood before expanding to describe other banks for sperm, eggs, and human milk. As technology and science allowed banks for body fluids and organs to evolve, body banks also began to treat body products in property-like ways, she says.

For example, 100 years ago, being on the receiving end of a blood donation meant lying beside the donor as his or her blood was pumped into your veins, in a direct, body-to-body connection. But after scientists figured out how to keep drawn blood from clotting, donated blood could be stored in bottles, and used as anonymous medicine. As body banks became institutionalized through society and law, the banks acted as a barrier between the donor and the recipient, keeping the two parties from knowing each other.

“We ended up thinking of body parts in terms of monetary banks. Whatever you put in you’ll get out,” Swanson says. “The bank helped reduce anxiety about using body products as medicine.”

Through her historical analysis, Swanson hopes to “denaturalize” what has become a “natural” way of thinking about blood banks and other such banks. And by bringing her work to practitioners, and “letting them know what you’re doing now has a past that helps you think about your present,” new regulations may result.

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

More information: See selected works by Kara Swanson to read more about her research.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Modern society made up of all types

Nov 04, 2010

Modern society has an intense interest in classifying people into ‘types’, according to a University of Melbourne Cultural Historian, leading to potentially catastrophic life-changing outcomes for those typed – ...

Recommended for you

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

20 hours ago

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

23 hours ago

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

23 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

23 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Dec 22, 2010
...but you can't assemble a body from spare parts alone...yet...

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...