Difficult ethical questions should be answered at a national level
Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper was the villain of that darkest of comedies, Dr. Strangelove. The embodiment of Cold War paranoia, Ripper was obsessed by the Communist threat — and in particular the danger posed to our “precious bodily fluids”.
But has this maniac become a prophet? If one swaps the Soviet Union for the European Union, it turns out that bodily fluids are very much on the political agenda.
According to a report from Brussels Signal, “the European Parliament has approved a draft regulation banning payments for breast milk, sperm, blood and other ‘substances of human origin’ (SoHO).”
The free market economist Alex Tabarrok is opposed to these restrictions. Writing for Marginal Revolution, he argues that “paying donors of blood, sperm and breast milk is an ethical way to increase the quantity supplied and it can be done while ensuring that the donations are high-quality and safe.”
By way of evidence, he points to countries that allow payments for donors — and have become net exporters of SoHO products. The US, for instance, is the world biggest’s exporter of human sperm. The symbolism of an over-regulated Europe becoming ever more dependent on American productivity is almost too much to bear.
On the other hand, Tabarrok thinks that the principle of a EU-wide set of rules is a good one. That’s because standardisation would allow a “greater flow across borders”. The phrasing is unfortunate, but that’s not my only problem here. While a single market in SoHOs may be more efficient, moral questions are best settled on a national basis.
Let’s start with blood. In the UK, a full donation is 470 ml or roughly four-fifths of a pint. In less fortunate circumstances, it would take a pretty serious injury to lose that much. Though the donation process is safe — and for some people relaxing — commercialising it seems wrong. That’s not just because of the incentive for over-donation, but because it undermines the principle of civic duty. The fact that millions of people freely (and literally) give of themselves to save a stranger’s life is precious indeed. Paying for blood might work, too, but what sort of a country are we?
Each fluid brings a different set of ethical considerations. For instance, sperm donation is about creating a life, not saving one. Whatever one might think about anonymous paternity, there are good reasons for placing strict limits on the number of recipients per donor.
These are deeply sensitive matters. Whatever the law says about them also says a lot about the society to which it applies. The EU is not a society, so to have its cumbersome apparatus interpose itself is inappropriate. What next? A standard set of rules on surrogacy, abortion and euthanasia?
No thanks. I want issues like these settled in my country, by politicians, campaigners and commentators debating in my language. The committee members of Brussels should mind their own bodily fluids.
Of course, Brexit means that Britain need not be standardised. There’s no guarantee we’ll come to the right judgements — but at least they’ll be ours.