Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: March 2015

59 - Human dignity and commodification in bioethics

from Part VII - Biology and bioethics


The meaning of human dignity

This chapter is concerned with how the concept of human dignity relates to the current debates in biomedical ethics about the commodification of the human body and its parts. Before considering the specific topics dealt with in this discussion, I shall clarify how I am using the term ‘human dignity’. In accordance with the approach of this volume as a whole, my use depends on the way in which the concept functions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. It appears in the very first sentence of the Preamble to the Declaration:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

As this wording makes clear, dignity is closely aligned to human rights, but also to the human family – not merely to the rights of individual members. This emphasis on human solidarity will be very important for my exposition of the issues in the current move towards the commodification of human bodily materials through what has been called the ‘tissue economy’ (Waldby and Mitchell 2006). In the decades since the UDHR was adopted, biomedical ethics developed dramatically in the United States and other Western nations; however, the debate rapidly seemed to place the sole focus on a notion of autonomy, narrowly understood as the individual's capacity of free choice. Such a narrow focus cannot be justified if we look at the detailed requirements of the UDHR, based on the core concepts of inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights. Just a few of the specific requirements of the UDHR illustrate this:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 29: Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

Andrews, L. B., and Nelkin, D. 2001. Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age. New York: Crown Publishers
Dickenson, D. 2007. Property in the Body: Feminist Perspectives. Cambridge University Press
Gill, M. B., and Sade, R. M. 2002. ‘Paying for Kidneys: The Case Against Prohibition’, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 12: 17–45
Titmuss, R. M. 1970. The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. London: George Allen & Unwin
Waldby, C., and Mitchell, R. 2006. Tissue Economies: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Weir, R. F., and Olick, R. S. 2004. The Stored Tissue Issue: Biomedical Research, Ethics, and Law in the Era of Genomic Medicine. Oxford University Press
Wilkinson, S. 2003. Bodies for Sale: Ethics and Exploitation in the Human Body Trade. London: Routledge
World Health Organization. 2008. ‘Blood Safety and Donation’, (accessed October 2010)