Now, our cells serve the new Empire

The continuing health and good life of the Caucasian body is dependent on an organ or two from Indians or Africans

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 11th Jul 2018   12:53 am

In December 1991, Lawrence Summers, then President of the World Bank, pondered aloud: ‘I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that … I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles … Shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?’ Summers would later serve numerous US governments, and Harvard University as its president, and his comment has the weight of a policy.

Summers was echoing a theme that the 18th century English statesman-philosopher, Edmund Burke, employed in the course of his extended speech during the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of British India. Burke noted that practices such as corruption and moral turpitude among English administrators that would be criticised and punished if indulged within the British Isles, were forgiven if practised in the colonies (here India).

Burke argued that it was latitude that seemed to determine English morality: the English could be barbaric, savage, corrupt and immoral with impunity because why would they need to be civilised in Africa or India that lay in the distant latitudes? Burke termed this belief system ‘geographical morality’. (Whether this gives rise to the idiomatic expression of ‘give latitude to…’ connotative of freedom is a moot point.)

Tangible, Palpable Practice

Geographical morality is a tangible, palpable practice. In the globalised age of transnational companies and capital, geographical morality determines practically all international transactions and policy-making. More than anything else, this morality has a corporeal, cellular manifestation.

Summers’ statement, one notes, comes less than a decade after Bhopal – in which Union Carbide had done precisely that: lower safety norms for the Indian subsidiary than for the American plants of the same company – and thereby harmed, irrevocably, native bodies in India.

Clinical Trials

Euro-American pharma companies opt for Third World nations for clinical trials because practices such as lack of proper consent gathering, compensation or subsequent support that would be unimaginable in the Euro-America could be carried out merrily on African or Indian bodies. David Fidler of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law notes the immediate need for Human Rights and International Law teams to crack down on this uneven system.

Adriana Petryna in her book on ‘travelling clinical trials’ notes the complete lack of control on pharma companies’ use of distant populations for their experimental drugs. The WEMOS Foundation in its 2010 report on global clinical trials says: ‘the shift of many clinical trials away from the West towards countries in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America … we have documented cases of unethical trials, most of which involve Western pharmaceutical companies’. Of course, this is not entirely directed at the Global South – this same report states that such trials are conducted on vulnerable migrant groups within the US. Science, clearly, is raced.

Visible in Lucrative Fields

Geographical morality is also visible in new technology-determined commercially lucrative fields like surrogacy. As Berkeley-based academic Kalindi Vora’s work demonstrates, hiring wombs in the Global South is far easier, because it is less regulated, than in the First World, leading to conditions of unwarranted exploitation of bodies here for the making, or (so-called) ‘completion’ of families there.

In the global bioeconomy, think of organ transplants and the trade in them. Medical anthropologists (Nancy Scheper-Hughes, for instance) and bioethicists have been screaming themselves hoarse for decades about the illicit trade in and continuing exploitation of Asian and African bodies in organ harvesting.

Traditional systems of slavery and colonialism that built ‘the West’ relied on non-white bodies for labour to produce prosperity for the white homes/families. In a contemporary biomedical twist, the continuing health and good life of the Caucasian body apparently demands an organ or two from the Indian/African one. The Global South remains a provider of bodies, lending a particularly corporeal turn to geographical morality. Clinical labour (Melinda Cooper, Catherine Waldby’s term) is now performed by globally harvested human subjects as a result.

Regulating Bioeconomy

If, as the OECD predicts in its The Bioeconomy to 2030 report (2009), biotech would constitute ‘2.7% of GDP in the OECD by 2030 [and] could account for an even higher share of GDP in non-OECD countries’, unless stringent laws regulating the bioeconomy are in place, we can only expect these tissue-transactions to increase exponentially.

Rebecca Skloot documenting the history of Henrietta Lacks – the African American woman who was, unknown to her in her lifetime, and her family (until decades later), the source of the ‘immortal cell line’ called HeLa now used worldwide for cancer studies – points out the moral vacuum at the heart of extracting the Lacks cells which then becomes justified in the name of science. In the geographical morality of clinical trials, experimental medicine and organ trade, very often international law is itself mired in this morality.

Globalisation has moved inwards: the First World no longer needs just the uranium in the South’s geological layers, it needs and acquires even the cells from the dermal ones.

Unhindered global access to native bodies is aided by the states in the Global South (Amit Prasad’s study of drug trials in India notes Indian neoliberalism’s alignment with globalisation and neocolonialism to produce ‘human capital’). Today, we perceive the most potent results of Burke’s geographical morality: the unwilling, often unknowable transnational mobilities of tissue from the world’s poor.

Once their entire bodies, now even their cells serve the new Empire.

(The author is Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)