Seven Ways To Sell Your Body

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 23 2009 8:20 AM

Seven Ways To Sell Your Body

As economies around the world continue to shrink, how many people will start thinking about selling their bodies?

Two years ago, the global market in human flesh looked like a humanitarian issue. It was a problem for those poor people in developing countries , not for us. But global capitalism doesn't care what color your skin is, as long as you've got some to sell and you need the cash. And, increasingly, people need the cash.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The idea starts with superficial rentals . Last month, according to the New York Times ,

FeelUnique.com, an online beauty products store, paid 10 men and women to apply temporary tattoos with the company's Web address on their eyelids and then wink at strangers. Chosen randomly from more than 6,000 who applied online, participants were paid 100 pounds (about $149) to wink at people 1,000 times, or 10 pence a wink, an allusion to pay-per-view Web advertising.

Harmless, right? So let's move around to the back of the head. Thirty people have hired themselves out to Air New Zealand as "cranial billboards," the Times reports. "For shaving their noggins and displaying the ad copy for two weeks in November, they received either a round-trip ticket to New Zealand (worth about $1,200) or $777 in cash."

A bit tacky, but who are we to judge? They need the money. And if people are willing to wear temporary tattoos for pay, why not permanent ones?

Since 2005, Dunlop Tires has hired tattoo artists to work at its booth at the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas, geared to motorists who modify cars. Volunteers who agree to be permanently tattooed—either with Dunlop's logo or its trademarked tire tread—while onlookers gawk receive a set of tires worth $500 to $1,000, said Jim Davis, a Dunlop spokesman. About 200 people have been tattooed so far.

If it's OK to sell permanent advertising on your skin, it's hard to see why we outlaw temporary prostitution, especially in view of current financial pressures :

Signs of the economic free fall have cropped up in many of Nevada's 25 or so legal brothels. The Mustang Ranch, for example, has a steady stream of customers, but the number of women vying for work has soared.

Should women who resort to this line of work in other states continue to be arrested? Do you have some other employment opportunity to offer them?

And if extra cash to women who need it is a good thing, what about the increasing use of undeveloped countries as testing grounds for drugs not yet approved in the West? According to an article in the New England Journal Medicine , "Pharmaceutical and device companies can realize substantial cost savings by conducting trials in developing countries, so they are increasingly moving phase 2 and phase 3 trials to places such as India and South America." In these countries,

There may be a relative lack of understanding of both the investigational nature of therapeutic products and the use of placebo groups. In some places, financial compensation for research participation may exceed participants' annual wages, and participation in a clinical trial may provide the only access to care for persons with the condition under study. Standards of health care in developing countries may also allow ethically problematic study designs or trials that would not be allowed in wealthier countries. In one study, only 56% of the 670 researchers surveyed in developing countries reported that their research had been reviewed by a local institutional review board or health ministry. In another study, 90% of published clinical trials conducted in China in 2004 did not report ethical review of the protocol and only 18% adequately discussed informed consent.

So, the standards overseas are lower, and the people recruited to test the drugs have fewer choices. But isn't that how capitalism works? Aren't these people getting value in exchange for supplying their bodies at lower cost? As Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, puts it : "More places outside the United States are participating in research—is that a bad thing?"

And what about the sale of human eggs, sperm, and surrogacy? Driven by the recession, women are lining up to sell their eggs and rent out their wombs . It's fully legal. Do you want to stop them or their clients? Do you think you can?

If it's OK to sell your eggs and skin—and to rent out your body for pregnancy or drug testing—why not let people sell expendable organs ? Thanks to the progress and spread of transplant technology, every healthy person with two good kidneys or a splittable liver now has a fungible asset. Earlier this month, for instance, the Asahi Shimbun reported :

Amid the serious shortage of available organs in Japan, a nonprofit organization admitted to helping 17 Japanese receive transplants in China even after Beijing banned such operations for foreigners in 2007. A deputy chief of the NPO [said] the group paid doctors in China, in addition to treatment costs, for the kidney and liver transplants there. ... Cases have already emerged of Japanese traveling to Southeast Asia for new organs.

I'm not saying all of these practices are acceptable or unacceptable. Some are more worrisome than others. But they're all happening, and they're all being driven by money. And as the recession takes away the external assets of more and more people, we're going to face increasingly difficult questions about letting them sell what's left.

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