World » Americas
Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

Does death provide a market?

On February 24, Ukrainian police discovered human tissues and bones inside a van mixed with wads of tickets. Ukraine is part of the international route of "ingredients" for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, dental implants, dentures and-wrinkle creams sold around the world and especially in America, largest recipient of such products.

By Santiago Alba Rico

It is very hard. On February 24, Ukrainian police discovered human tissues and bones inside a van mixed with wads of tickets. Ukraine is part of the international route of "ingredients" for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, dental implants, dentures and-wrinkle creams sold around the world and especially in America, largest recipient of such products.

In fact, research revealed that remnants of Ukrainian citizens were sent to a factory in Germany, in turn a subsidiary of a U.S. company of medical products based in Florida, RTI Biologics, that bills $169 million every year thanks to "recycled anatomical material."

One problem is that the system of human tissue donation is subject to much lighter regulation than seed or plastic toys and, of course, clearly more tolerant than blood or organs for transplant.

It is difficult to trace the illegal trafficking of skin, bone and blood vessels as most beneficiaries-in clinics and hospitals around the world do not know the origin of the what was installed in their teeth or dentures or whatever.

Even worse:  although a significant portion of this traffic comes from donations, what comes from illegal poaching and trade in corpses produces benefits ranging between 80,000 and 200,000 dollars for an "intact body."

Among the remains found in the van were some belonging to Oleksandr Frolov, 35, who died during a seizure. "On the way to the cemetery, when we were at the funeral, we noticed that one shoe fell, it seemed to be loose," said his mother. "When my daughter touched it, she said the foot was empty."  Later, the police showed them a list of what had been taken from the body of her son:  two ribs, two Achilles heels, two elbows, two eardrums and two teeth.

The story is long. In March 2003, police in Latvia investigated a local supplier, Tutogen, the German subsidiary of RTI Biologics, as to whether tissues were removed from about 400 bodies laid out in the Forensic Medical Institute without the consent of the State concerned. Two years later, Michael Mastromarino, owner of Biomedical Tissues, was prosecuted for buying up to 1,000 bodies from the gravediggers of New York and Pennsylvania to manufacture and sell biomedical products in Canada, Turkey, Switzerland and Australia.

Both in the cases of Tutogen and  Mastromarino, the bodies were stripped of their innards and stuffed with fabric, wood and pipes, and were returned to their families, who buried them without suspicion. Mastromarino, now in prison as a "body snatcher," said in fact: "This is an industry. It is a commodity. As flour in the market. It's no different."  He added, "I took shortcuts. But he knew where he could. We provided a fantastic product."

Trafficking in what is euphemistically called "anatomical material" has definite serious health consequences: the uncontrolled tissue implantations have already produced numerous cancers, hepatitis C or AIDS in recipients. But this, in any case, is very small versus the evil that is done to, say, "human civilization," whose historical and cultural foundation revolves around three elements: fire, seeds and the cult of the dead .

It may seem an exaggeration, but somehow protecting the dead humanizes the relationships between the living.  The dead are those who help to avoid temporary decomposition of human societies.  To atheists or believers, death appears to us as the insurmountable limit that threatens the social order and can only be absorbed in a precarious and provisional way, extending it, so to speak - in a fragile "society of ancestors."

The ceremony, memory and repetitious gestures - flowers on the grave, the grandma's recipe or the way a dead brother walked, trying to "solve" a problem that would otherwise dissolve in the terror all human relationships. Between us, we are linked because we are linked to the future through children and because we are linked to the past through the dead. Unlike the market, a human society includes all the demands of the past, present and future.

At death, the body definitively becomes an object. The corpse is alone and vulnerable and dependent. It requires care. After a solemn farewell, burying or burning it is a must, paradoxically, so as to not come back to life, that is, so that it does not become something other than what it was. The processes of decomposition - invasion of a new vital disturbance of another order - disrupting the final completeness of the dead person, which still at the moment retains its dignity, instantly inert, passive, helpless, what was once our mother, our uncle and our friend. This object - the corpse - is terrible because it is human and inhuman at the same time and because of our effort to keep its humanity, always unsuccessfully, it implies our resignation to its circumstances.

Our body is ours because we make sure that no one will touch it because we ensure that it will not be privatized by a stranger.  An attack on the world's collective responsibility, trading with the dead, leaving the body without vertebrae, veins and bones, is as an attack to all mankind.

The market has become legitimate, honorable and banal with the desecration of the dead. They say that the cult of the dead is a superstition, that progress requires leaving behind taboos hindering and, through this trade, the dead, with useless functionality, they become socially useful and help the living to continue living .

But the paradox is precisely that: to use the dead by turning them into a commodity, or refusing to give them up, to keep them in their bodies without allowing external forces in  their own society to do all this against the will of the dead and their survivors.

There are things that cannot be rationalized without completely losing right.  A humanity subjected to a famine that could only survive by feeding on the flesh of its dead parents would not deserve the name of humanity and not merit, therefore, the right of survival. The capitalist market always points to the collapse of civilization, and if you have not achieved their purpose, it is only because thousands of men and women sustain and underpin the cooking, loving their children, caring for elderly, burying their dead and fighting for earth and fire.

Translated from the Spanish version by:

Lisa Karpova


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