Original Book Review

cover The Human Body Shop: The Cloning, Engineering, and Marketing of Life, 2nd edn., by Andrew Kimbrell (1998) Reviewed by 
Bryn Williams-Jones

Given the title and the foreword by Jeremy Rifkin, one of the most vociferous and ardent opponents of biotechnology, it is not surprising that Kimbrell’s primary goal is to raise the alarm over the commercialisation and commodification of the body. As he puts it, he wants “to lift the veil of secrecy and ignorance that has kept the human body shop secret from full public review and comprehension.” (Kimbrell, 1993, 3) Kimbrell is opposed to all forms of commercialisation, be it the sale of blood, organs, sperm, or children through surrogate mothers. Having been trained as a lawyer, he looks at many of the seminal legal cases and quotes some eminent bioethicists in his various attacks on commercialisation.

He provides an excellent history of the research and development of genetics and new reproductive technologies, and the extent to which they have contributed to the commercialisation of the human body and its parts. Kimbrell personalizes and situates this history by including some truly appalling stories of exploitation of the poor and the extent to which infertile couples endure the trials and failures of reproductive technology in an attempt to achieve parenthood. He makes a good case for regulation of IVF laboratories, and argues convincingly for a total ban on the baby-broker business of commercial surrogacy.

            However, he is heavy handed in the way he casts blame on all researchers and clinicians, treating them as no better than corrupt, money-grubbing scientists who are out to exploit people who are already marginalized and oppressed, such as women, the poor, and people in underdeveloped nations. He argues that scientists want little more than to produce designer babies for the wealthy elite, thereby further perpetuating eugenic notions of perfection that devalue the lives of the disabled and ‘less-perfect’ of society. I do not want to sound like an apologist for fertility clinics, but I believe Kimbrell unfairly slanders much of the medical and scientific community by equating the positive and negative aspects of genetic and reproductive technology. There may be many clinicians in the market who are primarily motivated by financial rewards and feel at ease in ignoring questions of exploitation and oppression, but I do not think this constitutes the majority.

In the concluding part of his book, Kimbrell argues that Western philosophical tradition, and in particular enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes, are to blame for a reductionist view of the human body. This view, in turn, has been adopted by Western medicine and has led to people and their bodies being treated as little more than complex machines that can be commodified, dismembered, and sold on the open market. I believe this view is unfair. It is true that modern Western medicine has been largely dominated by dualistic and materialistic conceptions of the person that separated the person into the mind and physical body. But this separation demythologized the body and transformed it into a morally neutral secular object, open to mechanical intervention, which allowed physicians to explore the functioning of the body’s organs, systems, and parts. One can therefore argue that the dualistic metaphysic was crucial to the development of modern scientific medicine. This is not to say that the dualistic perspective is without fault, far from it; simply, that the dualism and materialism of Descartes and Hobbes were not wholly negative concepts.

In rejecting Descartes and Hobbes, Kimbrell instead extols the virtue of gift-giving, empathy, and reverence for the body. While I agree that these are important aspects of a more full and rich view of the person and the body, I am wary of Kimbrell’s tendency to buy into the naturalistic fallacy. One of a number of hidden premises running throughout his work is the view that humans, and the things we create, are outside of nature and thus ‘evil,’ or at least ‘not good’. He seems to imply that to do good, we must return to ‘natural’ types of procreation, free from the assistance of new reproductive technologies. However, his mistake is in thinking that just because something appears ‘natural,’ that it is good. Even if procreation is considered a ‘natural’ process, the way we understand it and employ it in our specific context is still a human and cultural construct that will vary cross-culturally. It is simply mistaken to think that because the Western biological sciences have developed techniques to assist reproduction that we are somehow violating ‘the natural order of life.’ This slip from the ‘natural’ to the ‘good,’ along with Kimbrell’s sacrilized view of the body, strikes me as a rather classic example of a theological perspective of procreation. While he does not explicitly argue from a religious perspective, I believe such a view underlies many of his arguments against genetics, new reproductive technologies, and commercialisation. Such a perspective is perfectly justified, but it must be made explicit if it is to be evaluated and taken seriously.

Finally, Kimbrell’s work strikes me in some ways as containing a naive neo-Luddite view. In categorically rejecting the role of genetic technology and the market and calling for a return to the more holistic and ‘natural’ understanding of the body, he does not face up to the reality of the market place or provide a solution to how we can best deal with the situation, short of throwing out the technology and embracing religious and holistic conceptions of the person.

            To conclude, while Kimbrell raises a number of important issues that should be part of the public debate, and does so in language that is easily accessible to the general public, he tends to alienate the academic reader. He has the annoying habit of coining terms that he thinks are in common parlance (e.g., ‘reprotech’ instead of ‘NRTs’ for new reproductive technologies), that in fact are not used in the current literature. Moreover, Kimbrell seems to assume that he is one of the few individuals challenging the commercialisation of human tissue, and ignores the work of all but a few scholars working within the academic and scientific milieu to help make research and technology more ethical. Instead, Kimbrell relies heavily on newspaper articles and the popular media for his sources, and misses a great deal of the important bioethical and medical literature dealing with the ethics of genetic and reproductive technology. His work is therefore unlikely to be taken seriously in the academic environment as it is heavily one sided and inflammatory. Kimbrell sends an important message, but at the cost of dismissing all the good that has come from genetics research.

Bryn Williams-Jones (bryn@genethics.ca)

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