Body Parts For Sale

Courtesy Stephen Scharper,

Many faiths find the selling of body parts troublesome

In Bangladesh, an indigent Muslim man asks for forgiveness from Allah for selling his kidney. For him, he is profiting from a very special gift from the divine, his own body, and thus the sale involves a religious transgression demanding atonement.

Another kidney seller from Bangladesh, a Hindu, poses as a Muslim in order to sell his kidney to a Muslim buyer. In addition to acquiring a forged passport and identification papers, he undergoes a painful circumcision so as not to alert the surgeon that he is indeed a Hindu. For Muslims, unlike Hindus, circumcision is commonplace.

While certain legal and ethical issues of the international organ trade have recently received prominent media attention, particularly with the arrest of Brampton resident Dr. Amit Kumar, accused of masterminding a global marketing of human organs, the religious and cultural issues involved in these “adventures beneath the skin trade” have been less in the public eye.

One reason these issues have surfaced at all is owing to the intrepid fieldwork of Monir Moniruzzaman, a resourceful anthropology student at the University of Toronto. Moniruzzaman has been able to locate and interview more than 30 organ sellers in his native Bangladesh – no small feat given that such commerce slices jaggedly across both legal and religious precepts.

While the ethical concerns engendered by these transactions touch on foundational issues concerning the body, society, and issues of North-South disparity, many underlying questions are often religious and cosmological in nature.

To get a better sense of the more spiritual and cultural implications of the organ trade, I spoke with a variety of Canadian scholars of religion who helped place this emergence in a religious context.

While many religious communities have stories and practices involving altruistic giving of one’s self or parts of one’s body to assist others, not all traditions would support organ donation, not to mention organ selling.

According to Victor Hori, a scholar of Asian religions at McGill University, Confucianism, owing to the tradition of “filial piety,” requires that you take care of what your parents and ancestors have bequeathed you, “including your body,” which is to be kept intact and unblemished. This is why, Hori observes, there is, traditionally speaking, Confucian resistance to tattooing as well.

In Hinduism, according to U of T professor Arti Dhand, while there are stories of sacrificing body parts to help others, the sale and commodification of body parts, which involve “crude material motives,” would be “highly frowned upon.”

For Hindus, Dhand states, “the body is to be maintained in a healthy state; this is why yoga is practised. The body is your vessel, your vehicle, to a higher realization.”

From a Christian vantage, according to Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College, when organ donation is performed without coercion, “it is a noble thing and manifests love of neighbour. There is a Christian principle there.”

For McQueen, the notion of organ trade, however, even the name, suggests a contractual event of instrumental parts, which is problematic, since “our bodies are not commodifiable.”

“As soon as we use the words `price,’ `contracts,’ `settlements’ and `agreements,’ we are thinking in a utilitarian way. From the moral point of view, we are looking at each other as commodities to be used and exploited at someone else’s expense.”

As these sundry religious traditions suggest, selling a kidney is quite different than selling a car. The religious issues raised by the trading of organs begs the larger question raised by an increasingly consumerist culture: “What ultimately is not for sale – and why?”


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