Email Updates

Enter your email address to receive occasional updates and previews from The New Atlantis.

Custodians of the Body 

Alan Rubenstein

Our organ donation regime strikes the right balance between generosity to the living and respect for the dead.

New medical technologies offer humanity increasing power to use and manipulate the human body. Techniques for precisely editing the human genome and for assembling human life at its earliest stages raise urgent questions about how we understand the human body and the appropriate limits on what medical science may do with it. But to answer these questions, we must first understand the commonplace biotechnologies that have already altered the way we think about the human body. One of the signal achievements of modern medicine is our ability to collect and transplant organs from one human body to another, a practice that raises vexing moral and philosophical problems — about the just distribution of organs to those who need them, about how to respect the wishes of donors and their families, about the integrity of the human body, and even about what death is.

In the United States, as in most other parts of the world, our laws and norms for dealing with the practical challenges of organ transplantation are grounded in an understanding of the transplanted organ as a gift. The very name of the law that has governed the practice for over fifty years — the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act — instructs us about the importance of thinking of transplanted organs as freely given gifts of the body. This system has long faced critics, for whom the shortage of organs for transplantation is a crisis that must be alleviated by a radical reform in how we procure organs. One proposal for such radical reform is to introduce a regulated market in organs. Allowing body parts to be treated as marketable property for sale would increase their supply and thereby save lives. The current system of donation, the argument goes, already implies that body parts are property we own, and as owners we should have a right to sell what we own...

Not yet available online.
To read articles in print before they’re posted online, subscribe today.
4 issues ~ $24

Alan Rubenstein is the Hanson Scholar in Ethics at Carleton College and Director of University Programs at the Tikvah Fund.

Alan Rubenstein, "Custodians of the Body," The New Atlantis, Number 60, Fall 2019, pp. 35-45.