Category Archives: Medical Research

Guinea Pigs, Colonoscopy Artists, and Prostitution: A Typical Taboo Trades Valentine’s Day

What could be more fitting for a Valentine’s Day Taboo Trades class than some readings on commodification of the body?  For today’s class I chose:

(1) Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, Taking Money For Bodily Services, pp. 276-298

(2) Carl Elliott, Guinea-Pigging, The New Yorker

(3) Cari Romm, The Life of A Professional Guinea Pig, The Atlantic (2015)

The concept of guinea pigging is one that I’ve written about here before, in Medical Research Subjects: Guinea Pigs, Laborers, Or Altruists?  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (as discussed by Romm), the first use of the word “guinea pig” as “human subject of an experiment” was in 1913, when George Bernard Shaw decried “the … folly which sees in the child nothing more than the vivisector sees in a guinea pig: something to experiment on with a view to rearranging the world.”

As used here, guinea pigs are healthy, professional medical research subjects who make money primarily through Phase 1 clinical trials (the trials meant to assess the safety and possible side effects of medications, rather than their efficacy). As noted by Romm, “The members of this group call themselves guinea pigs, or lab rats. They also call themselves professionals.”  This notion, of course, flies in the face of the preferred ethicists’ understanding of human subjects research, which likes to conceive of subjects as motivated by altruism.  As noted by Elliott:

Of course, ethicists generally prefer that subjects take part in studies for altruistic reasons. Yet, if sponsors relied solely on altruism, studies on healthy subjects would probably come to a halt. The result is an uneasy compromise: guinea pigs are paid to test drugs, but everyone pretends that guinea-pigging is not really a job.

Kieran Healy and I make a similar point about egg donors in our forthcoming paper, Repugnance Management and Transactions in the Body (forthcoming, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2017, 107(5)). As we say there:

The fact that egg donor compensation occurs within a gift-based cultural account poses other problems as well. Payments of up to $10,000 are hard enough to square with a gift narrative, but participants managed it. Egg donation is physically risky, after all, and there was a general consensus that egg donors deserved something for their efforts. Besides, all market participants recognized that without some compensation there would be very few egg donors. But once incentives enter the picture they threaten to undermine gift framing entirely. Would fertility centers and patients compete for the most desirable egg donors? How do you square extremely large payments that vary with the donor’s beauty, intelligence, or race with the notion that payments to egg donors are mere thank-you gestures or a token in recognition of physical discomfort? (emphasis added)

So, how does Nussbaum’s chapter on prostitution fit into all this?  In some years, I opt to assign Nussbaum’s chapter together with readings on sex work, but in some ways I find it a better fit with the human guinea pigs readings because Nussbaum makes her points about prostitution by analogizing to the commodification of the body more generally. Many readers, for example, will be familiar with Nussbaum’s famous example of the “colonoscopy artist,” who “gets paid for having her colon examined with the latest instruments, in order to test out their range and capability.”

When considered in this light, the job of guinea pig and that of prostitute (like all cases of bodily commodification) share some similarities – and some differences as well. In the end, Nussbaum is skeptical of commodification critiques, concluding that:

We need to scrutinize all our social views about money making and alleged commodification with extra care, for they are likely to embed class prejudices that are unjust to working people.


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Medical Research Subjects: Guinea Pigs, Laborers, Or Altruists?

Guinea pig wearing nurses hat

Guinea pig wearing nurses hat

Cari Romm has a great article in The Atlantic, The Life of a Professional Guinea Pig: What It’s Like To Earn A Living As A Research Subject In Clinical Trials. (HT: Jamie Boyle)

I’ve blogged before about my course on Taboo Trades & Forbidden Markets (see here for course resources, including reading lists, blog posts, and the like) and for the past several years have included readings about the market for professional research subjects. Last year, for example, I assigned this New Yorker article, Guinea Pigging, by Carl Elliott, together with More Money, More Problems? Can High Pay be Coercive and Repugnant?, by Sandro Ambuehl, Muriel Niederle, and Alvin E. Roth, and Martha Nussbaum’s, Taking Money For Bodily Services, in SEX AND SOCIAL JUSTICE.

I’ll certainly be adding Romm’s article into the mix in future years. The piece hits on two points that I have tried to make in various works on taboo trades, particularly human egg markets. The first is that attempts to keep payments low, out of coercion or other fears, does not necessarily result in altruistic donors. Instead, the result is often that donors with higher opportunity costs and better income opportunities exit the market, leaving behind “donors” who are poorer, potentially less educated, and more in need of money to meet basic needs. In other words, precisely the donors least likely to thoughtfully weigh the risks of donation against the monetary benefits and most likely to succumb to the “coercive” effects of money, because they have fewer income opportunities from which to choose. Second, pretending that donors are altruists, rather than sellers or wage earners, deprives them of legal protections and, sometimes, legal obligations.

'You mean you're going to do a test on a guinea pig now?'

‘You mean you’re going to do a test on a guinea pig now?’

I discuss both of these issues in a recent article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (the article is gated, but you can access an earlier draft on SSRN). As I state there:

The provision of human oocytes for third party reproduction (“egg donation”) has long been contested territory, sitting uncomfortably between the world of gift exchange and its crass cousin, the marketplace. . . .

[Yet] egg donation is a thriving and profitable industry, a substantial source of income for many young women, and the most important purchase that intended parents will ever make. In other words, it is a market, and well-established social policies seek to address a variety of concerns with respect to all markets. Among other goals, the legal regime governing markets seeks to control collusive economic activity and rationally tax income-generating activities. Those goals are in direct conflict with the [litigation discussed here, namely collusive price controls and challenges to ambiguous and inconsistent tax policies]. . . .

Together, these cases demonstrate the difficulty of achieving in practice what has seemed so appealing to many in the abstract – a mechanism that harnesses the market’s incentivizing forces while at the same time preserving ideals of reproduction and parenthood as outside of the marketplace. . . . A close examination of these cases also provides lessons on the dangers of romanticizing what is, for better or worse, a highly profitable and robust industry.

The Atlantic, quoting Carl Elliot, sums up these issues well in the context of medical research subjects:

“Under the basic ethics guidelines … research subjects are treated as if they are altruistic volunteers,” he [Carl Elliot] told me. The issue of payment for research participation is an especially complicated one, and the pretense of altruism acts as a hedge against accusations of unethical behavior. “You have to ask: Who has a month or three weeks to just check in to a trial site or live there for that amount of time?” he said. “Homeless people, undocumented people, people who are either temporarily or long-term unemployed, people who are out of jail who can’t get regular work.” Paying members of vulnerable groups to put experimental drugs in their bodies can seem dangerously close to coercion.

But treating money as an afterthought rather than the main motivator also means that guinea pigs aren’t considered employees. “It’s work, but it offers none of the protections of work,” Elliott said. “You don’t have the right to minimum wage, you don’t have the right to unionize, you don’t have disability payments, you don’t even have regular health and safety inspections.”

Read the full Atlantic article here. And definitely read my full article on egg donation here. 🙂

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