Commodification and transformation of the human body

The commercialization of the human body is an eminently controversial issue since it still exists a sacred vision of our body, which perhaps comes from our Christian legacy, and it is therefore difficult to touch it in a commercial context. Beyond the questioning of the commercial consideration that one can have of the human body, there are some consequences that the commodification can generate especially in terms of inequality and moral or ethical problems that can be observed. We will see that the commodification of the human body is an historical fact and that it has particularly increased in our time and raised other problems. To go further, we may also be interested in the modifications of the human; of past, present and future humanity. Thus, beyond the sacred body the modification of the human body has been visible for a long time in the history of man, but this idea of ​​modifying the body becomes particularly visible towards the 16th 17th century. Throughout the centuries, what can be seen, in particular with the progress of science and the passing of a certain ethic at present, is the fact that one wants to free oneself from chance, from finitude. The human body is no longer a fatality, no more finite but an improvable object, definable beforehand and while man has taken ascendancy over nature he now takes the ascendancy on his own nature.

An historical haggling of the human body…

Faced with this question and with what the history of our civilizations presents, we start from an observation: that of an actual commodification of the human body.

Indeed, taking the case of prostitution deemed to be “the oldest profession in the world”, this practice is indeed a commodification of the human body since a non-market state is transformed into a market possession that can be praised. There was even a public body management institutionalized of the prostitution in the Middle Ages even if there is also a so-called illicit, that is repressed, made outside “public brothels” or “municipal brothels”. Municipalities owned these public brothels but couldn’t assure the daily management this is why they delegated management to a tenant, with rights that were yearly put to auction. The “public” prostitutes were forbidden to leave the brothel, they ate, slept and were well regarded as a commodity bringing a remuneration.

Then, the sale of slave and the possession of individual (relation master servant), the slave definition of the Larousse is: “Person of condition not free, considered as an economic instrument which can be sold or bought, and which was under the dependence of a master”. The slave is a private property, the existence of it is proven since antiquity and the most known period is perhaps the triangular trade beginning in the 17th century where there was a French code called “Code Noir” wrtittent in 1685 which states rights and duties of masters and slaves in the colonies of the Americas. This one stipulated “We declare the slaves to be furniture”. This represents well an extreme level of commodification.

Even with the development of capitalism and Taylorism, the labour force sold by workers to perform simplified, repetitive tasks is also a commodification of their being. This is another form of slavery, the worker is reduced as “a mere machine to produce wealth for others” (Marx), and this overexploitation still exists. Still further is the appearance that is commodified through standards, through surgery and besides there is a saying in a Latin American country which says “There are no more ugly women, there are only poor women”.

This commodification is often linked to a balance of power between individuals, social groups, etc.

Indeed, concerning prostitution it is an activity most often practiced by women for reasons that are essentially related to male domination, slaves exist to the benefit of rich merchant, bourgeois families and come from war, raid, warrior relationship in general and the worker in his side has no choice but to sell his labour force because he has nothing else. We can also see commodification as a vector of inequality. Indeed, through these examples it creates groups of individuals who have nothing but their body to survive and are totally dependent on a person who is in a position of force. Although banned and condemned by the international community, slavery still exists. According to estimates made by the International Labour Organization (ILO), nearly 25 million people were victims of forced labour in 2016.

Factually, it is clear here that the human body has been relegated to the status of commodity for a long time and this process of commodification tends to increase with science and knowledge of the human body. Indeed, if previously it was the body of an individual in its entirety that was sold now the organs, reproductive gametes can be sold (among others).

Which intensifies with the knowledge of the human body…

Through the increase in the commodification of the human body, a part of the bioeconomy is developing. The living becomes a new source of productivity, the improvement of life sciences and knowledge of the human body allow us to enter into a commodification at a micro level of the human body where the macro level would be the individual himself. It is based on important scientific context, including knowledge of genes. Namely the evolution of technology and science has led to the creation of new services to meet existing needs, including the need to have a child for infertile or homosexual people. It is partly on this ground that the bioeconomy will strongly develop through the sperm and egg banks. Thanks to the current technologies we can now market the human reproductive cells.

Thus, there exists now the rental of a surrogate mother, which egg extraction can relocate to lower costs this is for example the case of an Indian surrogate mother with an American egg.

The increase, the rise of the market share in the human body can generally tend to a harmful sociological effect. Indeed, where moral pressure can be exerted in society because of good conduct, decency and standards-based education, the introduction of a market value may lead to the overcoming of behavioral standard that societal pressures dictated. This is well illustrated by Sandel’s study, which tells us that fear of disapproval and acting in a “bad-eyed” way by society are based on non-monetary values, which were stronger than mere currency. But the example of the daycare introducing a fine system to penalize late parents to pick up their children in the evening did not reduce this tendency to delays and even accentuated it, giving late parents an excuse. Backtracking is no longer possible because the introduction of market values ​​has destroyed old ideas of collective responsibility.

The techniques of artificial procreation consist of being met gametes and reimplantation. The first case of success took place in 1978 in England and was born Louise Brown the first baby said test tube, then came in 1982 Amandine in France, directed by Renée Freyman. We therefore dissociate sexuality and fertilization. Although the first date is in 1978, many tests have been done before, and for example the first in vitro fertilization success in animals is dated 1934. The first attempt in humans dates back to 1944 and failed to be implemented. This evolution really consists in freeing oneself from nature; moreover, in 1993, an Italian doctor allowed a post-menopausal woman over 60 to have a child of her husband who had been dead for 10 years (consider the surrealism of the situation). Yet this is only the beginning of an era since americans can now buy gametes. More than the existing markets, these are the incentives of some companies that are sometimes astonishing and lead to the commodification of the human body. Indeed, we can note for example the case of Facebook which offers its employees to freeze their ovocytes so that they can give birth in thirty years since currently, well, they work body and soul. It will also be necessary to specify that if there is currently no 100% artificial child manufacturing it is because science does not completely master the entire pregnancy process. There is indeed a part that scientists do not master but when they will, then the artificial uterus will be possible as well as an absolute eugenics and the presence of a market with high profitability. There is, moreover, a certain hypocrisy in our world about these practices under which hides a eugenics unconfessed in the light of criticism that was made of the eugenics practiced during the 3rd Reich. If the method is different it is indeed a practice whose ethics are doubtful and revealing many ills of our societies.

Transplantation is also part of these new technologies and is subject to debate. Indeed, in terms of health it is a definite progress since it can radically extend the life expectancy of people whose organs are no longer functional. The problem is that demand far exceeds supply. It should be noted that from 1995 to 2005 the number of patients on the waiting list increased by 4% per year.

This progression of the commodification of the body also tries to extend to the human genome by appropriating it notably via the patent. This is the case of the American company Myriad Genetics, which wanted to patent human DNA. However, the United States Supreme Court decided that there were two types of DNA manufactured. On the one hand, there is “natural DNA”, which does the same thing as what happens inside a person. This one is not patentable. On the other hand, “synthetic DNA”, significantly different, modified, and on which companies can file patents.

With its intensification, the profits also increase. It will be said that there is an extension of the sphere of the market to objects that traditionally has nothing to do with it: the elements and products of the human body become goods.

What only ethics and morals can mitigate

It is through ethics and morality that we can consider limiting this tendency to the commodification of the body but which they too must be discussed.

If the question of merchandising is currently raised it is also because there is a real lack of organ to offer to the people who need it, the demand increases and is much higher than the supply.

So, there is an interest of an incentive to organ removal but once this steps over the temptation it can quickly become too big towards a system or profits and perverse effects can become great.

Here inequalities can be seen in access to these technologies and the need for money, such as advertisements in US universities encouraging women to pay for their studies via egg donation (via financial compensation). With such merchandising we can consider a risk for society to push individuals to sell the product of their body to meet their needs

Patenting itself also presents risks here. Indeed, with it, it is very often only the ethics of researchers who oppose the financial logic that can create a blockage towards research since a company may abuse a dominant position in the matter of strong patenting of the living in addition to all the disputes that may exist of this patentability of life.

The appearance of biobanks that appeal to the gift is also subject to debate. The gift economy feeds on the body of the population and privatizes the fallout. Thus, we should not fall into what calls Céline Lafontaine a “technoscientific cannibalism” in the sense that the body of the poor feeds that of the rich, so a commercialization of the human body in this context may need a particular attention to not create too much inequality and keep an access to the transplant for anyone whose vital diagnosis is engaged.

As we’ve already seen if the question of commodification is currently raised it is also because there is in particular a real lack of organ to offer to the people who need it, the demand increases and is well superior to the supply.

Gary Becker and Julio Elias reminds us that moral considerations about the sale of organs have a price, which amounts to human lives because many individuals die for lack of organ donor, hence the need to introduce a market remunerating the offer to stimulate it. If such questions arise is that the organ market is actually not provided enough, there is not enough death in developed countries compared to the evolution of transplantation and from there emerges medical tourism, the development of other types of medicine such as the regenerative one but also an attribution of market value of the human body.

For the philosopher Ruwen Ogien, this is our culture that generates this difficulty to act on the body elsewhere, this is in China and India where there is the biggest amount of innovation in the bioeconomy applied to the human body as indicated by Céline Lafontaine because these countries do not worry about the precautionary principle that we can have in our countries and that they can more easily experiment directly on humans. For Ogien it would be relevant to have “a market of organs, regulated by the State”, which would have the merit, as in the case of drugs, to “break the existing black market”. Allow what we cannot prevented, but frame it. Also limit medical tourism, keep the hands on these markets to allow a control of the commodification that takes place.

The human body can, indeed, be considered as a commodity, but to the question of how it should be, I think it is necessary to pay attention to the degree of commodification of it because it is a vector of inequality, can slow down the research and can create negative trends in society. Another problem raised by Céline Lafontaine is that of finiteness, because the bioeconomy tends to make the finiteness of the living disappear with possibilities to have individual with life expectancy considerably lengthened, so if one does not manage to conceive of the finiteness of life is also difficult to think of that of our planet, especially through climatic issues.

Par Léandre Meier, 2017-2018 year group of M2 IESCI at the University of Angers


  • David H. Howard, « Producing Organ Donors », Journal of Economic Perspectives, été 2007
  • Entretien avec Céline Lafontaine du 22 juin 2014 sur RFI
  • Gary S. Becker [Nobel 1992] et Julio Jorge Elías, « Introducing Incentives in the Market for Live and Cadaveric Organ Donations », Journal of Economic Perspectives, été 2007
  • Interview de Jean Salem « la marchandisation du corps par le système capitaliste », 2014
  • « Sperme, ovules et compagnies », Le Monde, 12 septembre 2005
  • Larousse dictionnaire
  • Site de LesEchos
  • Site de l’ONU
  • Site de France Culture

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