“It all comes down to one simple question: Who owns your body, you or the government?” That’s the bottom-line question that John Stossel poses in “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity.”
Stossel’s libertarian viewpoint is that you own your body and should have a right to put your parts on an organ market if you wish. The other side of the same coin says that government should butt out of transactions freely entered into by consenting adults. Accordingly, ABC’s 20/20 co-host quotes a patient needing a kidney transplant as follows: “If I make a deal with you, why is it the government’s business?”
The rest of Stossel’s utilitarian argument notes that 6,000 persons die every year while languishing on a wait-list that’s 30,000 names long. If pure capitalism can reduce that number significantly, then why not put kidneys on a commodities board alongside pork bellies and soybeans?
Before getting carried away with the notion that “the market” is the answer to every question, it would be wise to note that more fundamental building blocks stand at the base of American institutions and society—including an ethic that embraces those “unalienable rights” listed in the Declaration of Independence.
According to that document these rights come from a “Creator” and, as such, are not subject to contractual alienation. Thus, while a person can agree to work for another individual for nine dollars an hour, he can’t sell himself into slavery—not even for nine hundred thousand dollars. (In this case, of course, philosophy preceded its historical realization.) Likewise, under the doctrine of unalienable rights, individuals aren’t permitted to put their lives on the trading block, no matter what the incentives.
(Readers might recall the 2001 case where a fellow in Germany consented to be cannibalized—a contract that was discounted entirely by a retrial judge who in May upped the "Rotenburg cannibal's" 2004 sentence from eight years to life in prison.)
John Locke, a philosopher not known for religiosity, observed that humans are God’s “property, made to live for his, not one another’s, pleasure.” This comment, which has a distinctly creedal ring, puts one’s body in a different class from used Hondas or laptop computers. It also recognizes the indissoluble bond that exists between body and soul—a bond that is obscured when one reduces the former to a piece of real estate marketable by a disembodied agent.
The effects of a kidney exchange wouldn’t stop with eyes and other organs. Such markets would also alter our basic notions of who we are. The idea that life is “unalienable” has already been drastically undermined by legally transforming unwanted babies in utero into valueless appendages. The notion that human life is a sacred gift will surely collapse once the vessel within which and by which that life exists is treated as a rack of meat. Indeed, if one’s own body is imagined thus, how much less respect will individuals have for strange cuts of beef?