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Human Tissue and Global Ethics


One important sense of 'global ethics' concerns the applied ethical issues arising in the context of economic globalisation. This article contends that we are beginning to witness the economic commodification and, concomitantly, the globalisation, of human tissue and the human genome. Policy-makers and local research ethics committees need to be aware that the relevant ethical questions are no longer confined to their old national or subnational context. A shift from questions of personal autonomy and identity can therefore be expected-towards the more problematic issues of justice, exploitation and distribution. Here we can learn from the distinctions drawn in legal philosophy, such as the notion of property as a 'bundle' of rights, from which we may choose rights favouring the interests of vulnerable populations. We may also wish to apply the distinctions drawn by Calabresi and Melamed between pure property rules, modified alienability rules, and pure non-property regimes. Global ethics also concerns issues of value disparity across cultures, directing our attention to the moral beliefs of indigenous peoples, for example, whose DNA or tissue is increasingly of commercial importance. In examining case examples from Tonga and Aotearoa/New Zealand, I will consider the impact of indigenous belief systems and of neo-colonialism on indigenous peoples' perceptions of Western researchers. It is clear that many indigenous peoples reject both the pure property system and any modifications, insisting on a pure non-property regime. How can they then be protected in a globalised market system that so far favours the opposite end of the spectrum?


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Dickenson, D. Human Tissue and Global Ethics. Life Sci Soc Policy 1, 41 (2005).

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