Storm Theunissen's Selling Herself, But Not the Way You Think

It’s a creepy thing to think about, the idea that you may someday benefit from human tissue products without knowing who they came from and where they went along their way.
Publish date:
August 14, 2012
social experiments, organ donation, human tissue trade, red market, Sex,

Storm Theunissen recently embarked on an interesting little experiment: She tried parting out her body to see how much it was worth. Obviously there were some limitations on the scheme, as she mainly focused on selling the things she could part with without, you know, dying, but along the way she learned some fascinating things about the global organ and tissue trade, donor shortages and more.

She also raises some interesting questions about the worth of a body itself, not just the person occupying it, something I’ve been thinking about ever since reading Mary Roach’s “Stiff,” which is a fascinating look into the world of cadavers, if you’re into that kind of thing1.

As Roach pointed out, your body can go on to do all sorts of useful things after death, from educating medical students to helping with the development of better safety equipment. Think of it as added value.

Theunissen started her project with the world's oldest profession, working as a lapdancer to get a taste of the sex industry. She noted that many clubs exploit their dancers, promising high nightly pay that's only really achievable for a handful of dancers. Unfortunately, she didn't probe deeper into the sex industry; she didn't, for example, work as an escort as part of her project.

After that, she delved into selling body parts.

(Photo by Flickr user AKZO, Creative Commons license.)

Theunissen points out that there is a black market in organs and other human tissues, illustrating a demonstrated need for them. Worldwide, thousands of people die each year waiting for organs, and a number of nations have tried to come up with innovative ways to increase donor participation to meet the need.

Even with these measures in place, gaps in supply and demand will continue, because you can’t get an organ from just anyone.

The “red market,” as it’s known, in human organs, tissues, and other products preys particularly on the Global South, where impoverished people sell blood and plasma along with organs like kidneys. Theunissen’s take on the situation comes from a very different perspective, but her findings are still important, and will hopefully expose audiences (she made a documentary) to issues they may not have thought about before.

She started, she explains, with trying to sell her hair. Knowing that human hair wigs can fetch a hefty sum, especially with hair that hasn’t been dyed or chemically treated, she expected to be able to sell her hair for a comparable amount, but instead she was offered a paltry sum, merely 5 percent of what a wig made with her hair could potentially cost a consumer on the other end.

When she looked into selling body fluids, she found similarly low rates, despite the fact that labs will pay substantially larger sums for fluids used in research.

Her eggs were probably her biggest moneymaker, but unfortunately, as she discovered, the older you are, the less desirable your eggs, and of course you have to go through a lengthy screening before you’ll be considered as a donor.

As with other forms of living tissue donation, officially donors can only be compensated for their time in the United Kingdom, where Theunissen conducted her experiment. For that reason, she looked into selling her eggs in the States, where we’re more free-wheeling about that kind of thing, but also much more choosy: Hey, if you’re gonna pay $15,000 a pop, you want to make sure you’re getting the best possible goods.

As in the red market for human organs and tissue products in the Global South, Theunissen ran up against the middlemen who actually control the market. She wasn’t allowed to sell directly to end consumers, which forced her to go through contracting firms that handle collection and storage. As the literal provider of the product being bought and sold, she stood to make a relatively small amount of money, while her fluids, skin, and other “donated” products could fetch higher and higher sums as they moved up the supply chain to an end consumer.

Wanted, dead or alive. (Photo by Flickr user Arnett Gill, Creative Commons license.)

It’s a creepy thing to think about, the idea that you may someday benefit from human tissue products without knowing who they came from and where they went along their way. And it’s something that’s becoming a pressing issue as the demand for organs and tissue products rises, while donor numbers still remain sluggish.

Even among people who want to donate, there can be considerable red tape, from difficulty donating blood if you have the wrong personal history to family members who aren’t aware of your intent when you die.

If she died, she noted, she could be parted out and sold for around $250,000 on the open market. While you can’t pay for organs in the United States, skin, bone and other types of tissue are freely sold and used in operating rooms across the country for grafts, cosmetic treatments and other purposes. This is a sizable chunk of the medical industry, including a number of major firms with heavy influence in the market that are eager to keep developing new uses for human tissue products.

One reason pricing is so high, of course, is because of the limited supply, but it’s notable to see who ultimately benefits from that pricing and who does not. Living donors selling parts of themselves to survive are typically making a pittance, turning to sale of their fluids and body parts as a last resort, while donors doing so with altruistic means in mind can still face a heavy cost in terms of potential complications.

There’s no easy solution to the shortage of donated materials, or to the pricing problem. Whether barring people from selling their own tissues, initiating price controls, mandating cadaver donation except in special cases or creating nationalized organ and tissue banks, proposals for addressing the issue aren't simple, and don't offer a magic bullet. Potential objections range from religious restrictions on cadaver donation to pragmatic concerns about whether medical companies will continue to develop products in a highly restricted market where they have to worry about their bottom line.

One thing is for certain: We need to stop living in a world where people have to auction off their own body parts to make a living.

1. And I totally am. Return