Biological Colonialism

During the bad old days of imperial colonialism, rich and powerful countries exploited weaker nations in order to expropriate their resources. Now, Wesley J. Smith reports that a new and insidious form of exploitation has emerged in which rich people literally buy the body parts of the desperate destitute. Such “biological colonialism” treats human beings as if they were mere natural resources ripe for the harvest, and as such, constitutes a profound threat to the sanctity and equality of human life.
January 13, 2009
by Wesley J. Smith

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of tothesource that the sanctity/equality of human life ethic—which holds that all human beings have equal moral worth—is collapsing. 

Commentators who reflect on this moral crisis usually focus on “culture of death” issues such as assisted suicide, abortion, and Terri Schiavo-type cases.  But there is another profound threat posed by this ongoing rejection of human exceptionalism; the commoditization and exploitation of the body parts and functions of the poor, effectively treating human beings as mere natural resources to be exploited and/or harvested. 

The most prominent form of this biological colonialism is the growing black market in organs by which the rich cannibalize the desperate poor from countries such as Turkey and India, paying them a few thousand dollars—or less—for a kidney or a slice of liver.  The problem of organ buying has become so serious in India, that despite it being outlawed in 1994, non government organizations estimate that at least 2000 kidneys are sold and bought each year. The Philippines became so alarmed at the exploitation of its citizens that the government recently banned all foreigners from receiving organ transplants in the country. Meanwhile, China has admitted selling the organs of executed prisoners, a practice it has vowed to stop.  But it has also been credibly charged—although because investigators are not free to look deeply into the allegations, it has not yet been proved—with murdering Falon Gong practitioners and selling their organs for tens of thousands of dollars.

Because of the reproductive processes and capacities of the female body, poor women are at particular risk for being targeted by biological colonialists. If therapeutic cloning ever takes off—obtaining embryonic stem cells from embryos manufactured through somatic cell nuclear transfer--it will require millions of human eggs to perfect and put into practice. But human eggs are literally worth more than their weight in gold, thus almost certainly setting off a commodities market that would pay women for their eggs.  Moreover, because of the potential risks associated with egg procurement—about 5% of cases resulting in infection, serious injury, infertility, serious injury, even death—it is unlikely that well off women in the West would line up in sufficient numbers as egg sellers to satisfy the demand.  The most logical alternative would be women in very poor countries where medical help would be less available should serious complications arise.

Alas, the threat to poor women is not merely prospective. For example, several stories have already been published about a new “profession” in India: Poor women renting their wombs to rich couples as surrogate mothers. The potential harm to these women, who are being treated as so many human brood mares, is profound. As Dr. Mohanlal Swarankar, chairman of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Jaipur and one of the leading fertility experts in India  told the Daily Mail:

"Surrogacy affects the whole moral fabric of a society and could trigger complex psychological and ethical dilemmas with no easy answers," he said.  He also worried that in a country where women are often forced into submission, "Who could tell if a woman hadn't been pressured to be a surrogate mother for the sake of big money?" He also warned that "the social stigma attached to carrying the child of another man" could traumatize women and their relationships with their husbands.

Another twist on this “fertility tourism” is for Western women to buy the embryos of the poor, the Times of London has reported.  Because IVF is so expensive and bureaucratic, the story states, some families have chosen to fly to India and buy ready-made embryos for implantation and gestation to birth.

Then there is an even more disturbing, and hopefully apocryphal, story of women in the Ukraine being paid to get pregnant in order to abort so that fetal stem cells can be harvested for use in beauty treatments.  If this story is true, it is literally fetal farming. And get this: The BBC—no tabloid source—reported that newborns may be being snatched and killed in the Ukraine for their stem cells.

There have also been reports of poor people in developing countries being used in unethical medical experimentation.  Thus a 1997 editorial in the England Journal of Medicine castigated AZT experiments on pregnant women with HIV infection in Africa and other poor areas around the world. The controlled trials sought to determine the best dosages to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child during birth.  Despite it being known previously AZT inhibits such transmissions, some of the women received a placebo that would do nothing to prevent HIV transmission, thereby risking their babies to contracting AIDS.  This approach would never be permitted in the West. Indeed, it was in direct contrast to similar US studies in which all women received varying dosages of AZT.

One definition of evil is treating human beings as objects rather than subjects. That is precisely the implication of biological colonialism. While the poor may always be with us, that does not justify our exploiting our destitute sisters and brothers or putting them at risk to improve our own health or fulfill our familial desires. Rather, the proper and humane response to deep poverty is loving and selfless outreach, assistance, and devotion.

Prophetic Voice in the Public Square

It would be impossible for anyone involved in matters of religion, culture and public life to have not had their path cross in some way, shape or form with Father Richard John Neuhaus. His lasting legacy to so many of us around the world is found in his writings and most notably, his formidable journal, First Things. As founder and editor-in-chief of the journal, he promoted public dialogue, spurring great conversations and debates around the ‘First Things’, which are foundational to any democracy; matters involving religion, philosophy and politics. His “While We Are At It” musings were a welcomed friend and showed his heart and depth as a human being.

Also, a writer of many books, including The Catholic Moment, The Naked Public Square (1996), Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist, Death on a Friday Afternoon (2001), and As I Lay Dying (2002), are just a sampling of the depth of his contribution to public discourse on so many matters with historical moral and social implications to a free society. He was eloquent, jocular, and prophetic and wise – a great leader for such a time as this.

In his tribute to Father Neuhaus in National Review Online, Peter Wehner writes, “Beyond his influence in our national life, Father Neuhaus was a wonderful and delightful man. Many knew him better than I, but what I did know of him led me to conclude he was an exceptional man. When I would travel to New York City while serving in the White House, I would make it a point to drop in to see Father Neuhaus, to benefit from his wisdom, to gain perspective, and to experience the joy of his company. I helped arrange to have him come to the White House, so others, including the President, might as well. Over the years he was always very kind and supportive of me. And I would always delight in receiving e-mails from him, often in response to something I had written, many times offering an insight which I wish I had thought of, and sometimes offering a gentle corrective.”

He will be missed by so many who knew him as friend. We imagine he is hearing now the words, “well done my good and faithful servant.’ His life was a great example of the life lived well and so full of human flourishing. He lived in the Culture of Life and he knew how important it was to put first things first.

First Things Founder Richard John Neuhaus Dies at 72

The Rev. George Rutler, a fellow New York City priest, who reportedly administered last rites to Neuhaus, said his friend's writings in First Things raised the level of conversation in America.

"Father Neuhaus elevated the debate about secular culture by showing that theological considerations engage the highest science of the mind, and are not cultural asides," Rutler said in an e-mail. First Things, and his monthly column, "The Public Square," "gave us a frame of reference for talking about the marginalization of the eternal verities," Rutler said.

Christianity Today

wesley smith   Wesley J. Smith
Award winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His book Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder (1997), a broad-based criticism of the assisted suicide/euthanasia movement was published in 1997. His book Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, a warning about the dangers of the modern bioethics movement, was named One of the Ten Outstanding Books of the Year and Best Health Book of the Year for 2001 (Independent Publisher Book Awards). He is currently writing a book about the animal rights movement.

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