Whose Body (Of Opinion) is it Anyway? Historicizing Tissue Ownership and Examining ‘Public Opinion’ in Bioethics

Bioethical Issues, Sociological Perspectives

ISBN: 978-0-7623-1438-6, eISBN: 978-1-84950-501-7

ISSN: 1057-6290

Publication date: 1 January 2007


Debates regarding patient claims to extant tissue samples are often cited as beginning with the infamous US case of John Moore vs. the Regents of the University of California (1984–1990) – where the plaintiff unsuccessfully tried to claim title in a cell line derived from his excised spleen. Following the 1990 Supreme Court verdict, the issue of patient property in excised tissue was held by certain bioethicists as the ethical problem inhering in biomedical research from the 1980s onward: encompassing debates about a newly-avaricious biotechnology, consent, autonomy and identity. I show here that the concept of patient property was first mooted during the 1970s, some 10 years before Moore, as a response to US-based criticism of the use of foetal and human tissues in research. Rather than representing a struggle between an avaricious science and misled patients, it evolved as a result of debates between philosophers, lawyers, scientists and members of the public, amidst broader debates regarding human experimentation and abortion. Moreover, the first person to assert a patient's right to their own, or their family's tissue, in a legal arena was a scientist. This article attempts to investigate, through the evolution of ownership debates, how bioethicists and scientists themselves construct what counts as ‘public opinion’.


Wilson, D. (2007), "Whose Body (Of Opinion) is it Anyway? Historicizing Tissue Ownership and Examining ‘Public Opinion’ in Bioethics", Katz Rothman, B., Mitchell Armstrong, E. and Tiger, R. (Ed.) Bioethical Issues, Sociological Perspectives (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 9), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 9-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1057-6290(07)09001-8

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