Glenn Beck offered to sell a likeness of President Obama submerged in a mason jar full of yellow liquid for $25,000 on Tuesday. The work, which Beck calls “Obama in Pee Pee,” is an homage to Andres Serrano’s controversial 1989 photograph “Piss Christ.” EBay canceled the auction because the company prohibits the sale of bodily fluids, but Beck later revealed the urine was fake and continued to take bids via email. Is it legal to sell your urine?
It depends on the reason and the location. Selling urine as part of a work of art appears to be legal. There is no federal law banning the practice. The National Organ Transplant Act prohibits a donor from receiving “valuable consideration” for a kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, bone marrow, cornea, eye, bone, or skin, but the statute doesn’t mention urine. Several states have their own laws regarding the sale of human tissue and products, but most exempt tissue or fluids that are easily removed and renewable. Illinois, for example, excludes “blood, plasma, blood products or derivatives, other body fluids, [and] human hair” from its organ-trafficking law. California’s ban applies only to “nonrenewable or nonregenerative tissue.” (The statute lists blood plasma and sperm as nonrenewable products, raising questions about California legislators’ knowledge of human physiology.)
Sale of urine is, however, illegal in certain states under specific circumstances. In the late 1990s, a South Carolina man named Kenneth Curtis launched a lucrative business selling his urine to people who worried that they might fail a company drug screen. He produced 50 urine samples a day by drinking large amounts of tea, coffee, and fruit juice. A laboratory analysis confirmed the samples were clean, and buyers paid $69 for each 5.5-ounce pouch of urine. Curtis claimed to sell more than 15,000 samples annually. South Carolina outlawed his business model in 1999, and other states have passed similar bans. These prohibitions, however, would not apply to Beck’s auction—even if it did involve real urine—because it is not intended to fool a drug test. (Curtis, incidentally, continued to sell his urine despite the ban, and other entrepreneurs have entered the field as well, helping workers to conceal drug use, pregnancy, or health conditions from employers.)
There’s very little debate over the sale of urine. The scholarly literature contains more arguments over the propriety of selling organs, blood, or breast milk. Advocates argue that an open market on body fluids and tissue would improve supply, while opponents say it would commodify the human body and encourage sellers to lie about their health status to make the sale. Since so few people want to buy urine, and it is never infused into a recipient, these arguments don’t seem to apply.
Some reports suggest that the yellow liquid in which Beck has submerged the Obama likeness is actually beer, which raises more legal issues than urine. Beck’s headquarters are in Texas, where you must obtain a permit to sell beverages containing greater than 1.5 percent alcohol by volume. There is no exception for sales of small volumes or for the purpose of political satire. Violators face fines and up to one year in county jail.
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