Bodies as Commodities of Inequality

By Molly Maier

The Girl With All the Gifts is a futuristic story of a teacher, a scientist, and a young black girl named Melanie. A fungus has turned almost everyone into mindless, flesh-eating zombies called “hungries,” whom the few remaining humans are furiously trying to escape. Melanie is part of a special group, the second-generation hungries, who still eat flesh, but also can think, learn, and interact like normal humans. The film opens in a military bunker where the second-generation hungries like Melanie are being kept under close military watch to be studied by Dr. Caroline Caldwell. Near the end of the film, Dr. Caldwell asks Melanie to sacrifice herself so that she can finish developing a vaccine against the fungus. Melanie responds, “Why should we die, so that you may live?” Her question is applicable to more than just the fictional hungries as we examine the historic use of minority bodies by white researchers for scientific experiments.

Take Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer. Cells from her cervical cancer tumor were taken without her knowledge in 1951. The cells have been bought and sold by millions, and have since been used for the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. Her cells, called HeLa cells, are one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century, but today, Henrietta Lacks’ family cannot afford health insurance (Zielinski).

Take the development of the oral contraceptive pill by Dr. Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock. After the hormonal medicine had successfully been tested on rabbits in the US, the researchers needed to conduct a larger-scale clinical trial. In 1955, they went to Puerto Rico, and gave close to 1,500 women the medication. Framed as saving them from too many pregnancies, the women were subject to unexplained, dangerous side effects. Carmern Sanjurjo, whose mother participated in the trials, commented, “They always used us Puerto Ricans as guinea pigs.”

Take the cheek cell culture taken from a Guaymi women. Her samples were taken and patented as part of a sampling program through the Human Genome Diversity Project. Researchers discovered that a virus contained in her blood stimulates the production of antibodies, which will turn out to be very profitable in treating leukemia and AIDS. She will not be profiting from these sales (Hawthorne).

Under the guise of research, many minority and ethnic bodies have been exploited. Like Melanie asked, why is it that those are the people who have to die, those the bodies that suffer for a “greater cause.” When looking for answers, our attention turns back to the complex social hierarchy of gender, race, and class. Discrimination has taken the form of biopiracy, stealing pieces of bodies and reducing minority women to lab rats. As science continues to advance, we must ask who we perceive as human and sub-human, must constantly examine who is dying to benefit whom.

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