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: Best of Last Week – Detecting dark matter with GPS, a gel that stops bleeding and the benefits of fasting

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

Engineers develop gift guide for parents

Nov 21, 2014

Faculty and staff in Purdue University's College of Engineering have come up with a holiday gift guide that can help engage children in engineering concepts.

Former Brown dean whose group won Nobel Prize dies

Nov 20, 2014

David Greer, a doctor who co-founded a group that won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for working to prevent nuclear war and who helped transform the medical school at Brown University, has died. He was 89.

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...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.