TONIGHT I attended a lecture at Sydney Uni by Catherine Waldby entitled “Biology and New Communities.” (It may, at some point, It’s just appeared as a podcast here, where there are already a couple of interesting-looking casts available). I already knew Catherine’s work (various conferences) which mainly has to do with the various ways that biotechnology and particularly the possibility of removing living tissue from the body and keeping it (the tissue, and sometimes the body) alive alter economies and communities. Her presentations always spark me off in a billion directions at once. And once those sparks went nowhere. Now I have a candle (aka da blog), and can actually justify (kinda) spending a little time thinking about her work in written form… or at least can write with a sharp retort to be able to offer my guilt-demon.

But first, I’ll give you a sense of what she talked about so I can frame my response to it in those terms. Tonight she organised her discussion of tissue economies in terms of community. She opened by suggesting that the alterations to ideas about community are incredibly clear when we think about kinship, marked (so she suggested) traditionally by the sharing of biological material (from gametes from mummies and daddies to breast-feeding etc). Clearly the increased use of reproductive technologies affects this particular notion of community.

But her first detailed example was actually blood donation. She began with a very brief history of blood donation in the West, starting with its use during the Spanish civil war, but really becoming entrenched during WWII. The nationalistic notion of belonging to a nation-state by blood (English blood, French blood etc) from the C19 became entrenched here not only through the concept of ‘shedding blood and shedding one’s own blood for one’s country’ but also through the encouragement of civilian blood donations as part of the ‘war effort’. We begin to see, then, the production of a nation-community as informing the approach to one’s own biological matter. From here, she sketched Richard Titmuss’ thesis in The Gift Relationship. Basically Titmuss, who was at the London School of Economics, was responding to economists at the same institution who argued that blood donation should be made a market economy (blah blah more efficient, same old story as always). His argument against them draws on Mauss on the gift economy to suggest that the gift of blood is significant in maintaining social ties through a sense of indebtedness and obligation that all hold to the community on the basis that there’s a blood bank all can draw on at need. This differs to contract because the gift exchange is never fully complete because the gift remains (in this case quite literally) kind of a part of the donor. The ‘imagined community’ (Benedict Anderson) that is thus produced is extremely, Titmuss argued, important to the maintenance of the (welfare) state.

From here she turned to the most recent enactment of this: the national biobank. These don’t exist yet in Australia (though there’s one planned for WA) but our population is probably a bit too big to be able to live up to the standards of Iceland’s standard-setting example. Iceland—Cathy didn’t talk about this tonight, but I’ve seen her speak about it elsewhere—became all too aware that its major export—fish—was an unsustainable industry. So they began looking for other ways to sustain their economy. And some bright spark came up with the notion of a national biobank: not only would it be good for public health management, but it’s the ultimate commodity for the burgeoning biotech economy. A biobank basically contains bodily tissue collected from citizen—usually blood (for DNA)—which is catalogued along with the medical histories of the citizen. Iceland, apparently, was particularly good for this because it has a manageable population size, and (I don’t know the details, but this is interesting nonetheless) a low immigration rate. This produces less variety in the samples and thus makes them easier to compare (I think that’s right.) In Iceland, there was much argument about how to create and regulate its use; originally, shifting away from compulsory enrolment, they chose an ‘opt-out’ mechanism. I can’t actually recall if that was sustainable or not, in the end, but I do know that it became part of the national sense of duty to contribute to this biobank which was going to ensure the nation had a huge commodity that would support the economy.

(Just on a side note, I find the Iceland example interesting; in the past, Cathy has spoken about it in terms of a social contract which you have an obligation to (that was the compulsory enrolment position). My response to that was to ask how abandoned tissue (if you have a biopsy or an operation, any tissue removed during is considered to be ‘abandoned’ and hospitals sell it on to pharmaceutical companies who then use it for their research) functioned differently: you can’t even opt out of that if you want medical care. Is this part of a sociomedical contract? Mmm. I liked this thought.)

But the sense of community in relation to blood donation turns out, by comparison with the biobank sense of community, to be immediate, and in the present or near future. A number of participants in the UK Biobank articulate their donation as towards a future community. This is primarily because, in contrast to a blood bank, we don’t really know what use a biobank is going to be; we just know it’ll be good for biotech research. But interestingly, from the civilian investment in the global power-based preeminence of the nation-state via blood donation, civilian investment in a biobank contributes to the future scientific preeminence of the nation-state as measured by its usefulness to big pharma.

From biobanks, she turned to gamete donation and the idea of distributed kinship. Sperm donation has long been anonymous. The introduction of laws which require that certain medical information be made available to children, as part, Catherine suggested, of the focus on the ‘rights of the child’, has actually meant a drastic drop in donors. What’s intriguing about this (for me, anyway) is the uncovering of these rights that occurs in and through the development of health and health education. I guess this isn’t that profound, but the rights of children are being invoked here makes me wonder about how many more ‘human rights’ are waiting to be found by biotech research and the concommitant capitalising on them by medical science. Anyway, back to sperm donors: in the US, the response to the inability to identify a sperm donor has been the development of the Donor Sibling Registry. Ah, biotech innovation combines with the development of internet cultures to produce what is a kind of ‘My Space’ where connection occurs through sharing biological kinship but not (up until this point) social kinship. Apparently parents take half-siblings on play-dates and adolescents create their own community. Kinship via distributed biological matter. I found this intriguing.

And finally, the big scary one: ova selling and global markets. Here I think it dovetails interestingly with this post from s0metim3s concerned with trafficking and the illegalisation of some forms of immigration; I’ll come back to this at the end of my description of Catherine’s lecture. Donating ova is a pretty onerous procedure: you undertake a month of heavy hormone treatment designed to make your body prep more than its usual one ova for release from the ovary, and then you have invasive surgery under a general to remove them. Aside from the risks of surgery, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome causes fatalities in between 1 and 4 % of the women undergoing this procedure. So most women who are using it are doing IVF, and these are, in most Western countries anyway, the ones who donate ova to other women.

But more and more people are undergoing IVF treatment, and more and more are requiring extra ova; not to mention the need for stem cells for research. Here we move more explicitly into the relation between the nation-state and the global market. In Europe, for example, the UK, Germany and Scandinavia have really strict regulation of ova donation, so less of it happens. In Spain, however, clinics can pay women to donate. Thus we have medical tourism or IVF holidays becoming available in countries where the regulation is really strict, often through partnership deals with fertility clinics in Spain. Some of the women who donate ova to these clinics are poor immigrant women. Many, however, are from former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe who are actively recruited to Spain for two reasons: they’re blond (which makes their genetic makeup attractive for what is predominantly white, Westernised IVF purposes) and they’re poor. They earn usually 300-600 pounds per procedure, which is about 3-4 months of income in their own countries. Some undergo this procedure five times a year—which is really risky—and will be offered more money if they take higher hormone doses which of course risks ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Interestingly, Catherine explained that many women combine a donation with work in the sex industry before returning home.

Such women, of course, are beyond the protection of national citizenship, which includes limitations on the ways that ova donation can occur, and are thus incredibly vulnerable. The merging of sex trafficking and ova donation trafficking in this regard only reinforces this vulnerability (Catherine’s applying for a grant to see if they can find links with organised crime here, which she strongly suspects). Both industries are, of course, the result of the huge wealth differentials between nation-states across the globe. Here Sharma’s comments cited by s0metim3s become increasingly important in thinking a response to this, especially given that the nation-state not only cannot protect women like these, but contributes to their vulnerability:

I argue that only by recognizing the agency, however constrained, of illegalized migrants can we come to understand how processes of capitalist globalization and the consequent effects of dislocation and dispersal shape the mobility of illegalized migrants. Within the current global circuits of capital, goods, and people, I argue that along with a call to end practices of displacement, a demand to eliminate immigration controls is necessary if feminists are to act in solidarity with the dispossessed in their search for new livelihoods and homes. (Nandita Sharma “Anti-Trafficking Rhetoric and the Making of a Global Apartheid” (NWSA Journal, 17.3, 2005))

Whilst Sharma is clearly referring specifically to asylum seekers here, I would suggest her position regarding the removal of immigration borders reinforces the suggestion that Catherine made at the end of her paper. She pointed out that the imagined community as bordered by the nation is no longer sufficient, a fact which is testified to by the vulnerability of ova donors, and that other ways of imagining communities which extend through and across borders become not just important but necessary in responding to the social justice questions that are raised by these kinds of tissue economies (and others, of course).

My question in response to these concerns is more, I suppose, theoretical than anything else, though with a strong practical concern. In the end, the communities that the West has thus far proven capable of imagining are fundamentally limited. Even heterogeneity within the nation is considered to be threatening in many cases, producing (as Nancy amongst others have argued) a community far too concerned with commonality; and we watch the dire consequences of the rejection of heterogeneity in what one might call (altogether problematically) the ‘global community’ everyday. In the end, for a suggestion like Catherine’s to be tenable, I think that what we need is not merely to ‘expand’ those who this community is thought to include, but expand the very notion of a community (though perhaps these two things inflect and necessitate each other). Otherwise, the very differentials that cause the vulnerabilities for which Cathy is concerned to ensure protection will merely end up playing through in those new communities, in those protections. That is, without a re-imagining of the ways that community can operate, the ‘imagined community’ expanded from the national becomes, I think, colonialist, imperialist. And such a re-imagining could, would and should affect the functioning of these tissue economies, not to mention the global biotech industry (or, you know, the whole global economy) in ways that we can’t even—and shouldn’t be able to—imagine.

*Post title comes from the name of Catherine Waldby’s and Robert Mitchell’s book. She also has one forthcoming entitled the Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (from Palgrave).