The Hive Recap: Governed As It Were By Chance

Our Bodies, Ourselves Revisited
By Cosima Herter, Series Science Consultant


“I think he took something from inside of me…”

What the heck happened to Helena?!

I wish I could say more, but I can’t spoil what’s to come…

However, what I can tell you is that this episode is one of the most emotionally heart-wrenching, and shocking, in many ways, for me. That’s not simply because Tatiana’s performance, in particular, is amazing (as always), but also because it’s so acutely affective on a visceral level that I cry every time I see the two final scenes (and, believe me, I’ve seen them many, many times, and not once have they failed to choke me up!). One of the many issues we discussed in the writers’ room while working on season two had to do with ownership of our bodies—not just women’s bodies, but all bodies. What exactly does it mean to “own” your body? The body as a whole? It’s parts? What about parts that have been removed, shed, discarded, or become “waste?” Which parts, and why those parts?

These aren’t just intellectual issues limited to philosophical and political concerns about personal agency, self-identity, and rights of citizenship. The issues regarding bodies as well as body parts and their ownership are actually quite immediate, and they emerge most evidently (and egregiously) when biomedical research is involved. Personally, I became almost fanatically interested in these matters when I first read Rebecca Skoot’s article “Taking the Least of You,” in the New York Times back in 2006. [1] She went on to write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), which also profoundly affected the way I think about these things (it’s also become one of my favorite books to teach to undergraduates in the history of science and technology).

Here, then, are some thoughts regarding the history of the medical commercialization of women’s bodies, in particular. Of course there is SO much to be said about these issues—about bodies of all kinds, not just those of women, throughout history being bought, sold, used, enslaved, and valued for their utility alone. Here is just one way to think about them.


In 1970, in an effort to educate and disseminate knowledge to women about their own bodies, the Boston Women’s Health Collective produced a short stapled-together newsprint booklet entitled Women and their Bodies: A Course. “Initially,” they claimed, the intent was “to do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and noninformative,” [2] and in so doing also address (at least obliquely) “capitalist forms of medicine,” the “profit and prestige-making institutions of the “health industry” (hospitals, medical schools, drug companies, etc.) [3] that seemed to profit from keeping women ignorant of their own biology. By 1973 the booklet was revised and renamed, and was commercially published. Our Bodies, Ourselves became one of the most controversial and highly acclaimed books in America. In 2012, the American Library of Congress recognized Our Bodies, Ourselves as one of the most important books that has shaped America. [4]

“What are our bodies?” the books asked. “[T]hey are us. We do not inhabit them—we are them (as well as mind). This realization should lead to anger at those people who have subtly persuaded us to look upon our bodies (ourselves) as no more than commodities to be given in return for favors. In fact we feel we are commodities because our bodies, in toto and dismembered, are used to sell products.” Moreover, the book went on, “[O]ur bodies are unique because they—us—will never occur again.” [5]

Our Bodies, Ourselves was more than a protest against what the authors viewed as traditional misogynistic hierarchies of medical authority, but also a vigorous rallying cry that addressed questions of autonomy and female agency more generally. As long as women’s bodies were viewed and valued as commodities, particularly insofar as sexuality and reproductive capacities are concerned, the book asserted, women remain stripped of their competency for autonomous self-identity. And in that case, women’s bodies would be reduced to material property, rather than independent agents with the right to choose how and in what ways (not to mention, with whom) their bodies (themselves) could engage in the world. There was profit to be made—if not financially, than in the maintenance of gendered social hierarchies—by simultaneously alienating women from their bodies and reducing their bodies to material economic entities, the argument went. The issues raised by the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves became pivotal within 1970s civil rights rhetoric that protested the institutionalized oppression of socially and politically marginalized populations.

Using other bodies as material property, in whole or in parts, for commercial and industrial purposes was not new in the realm of medical research. More than 20 years earlier, George Gey, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had successfully cultured a sustainable human cell line from the cancerous tissue of Henrietta Lacks’ cervix—now famously known as HeLa cells. Lacks’ cells were taken, cultured, propagated into immortality, and sold as a lucrative commodity without her knowledge or her consent.

Since then, HeLa cells have been bought and sold by researchers around the world, millions of times over, and used to fuel all manner of research and medical advances from polio vaccines to studies on cancer. HeLa cells were also the first cells ever to be cloned (1953), and in 1965, when they were fused with mouse cells, constituted the first ever hybrid human-animal cells. Henrietta Lacks had never been informed of, let alone compensated for the parts of her body that were commodified and used to form the very basis of what has now become a highly profitable industry of commercialized tissue samples—something Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has aptly called the “tissue-industrial complex.” [6]

By 1987, concerned with increasingly complex and contentious issues raised by the proliferation of biotechnologies, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment published for the first time a special report analyzing the “economic, legal, and ethical rights of the human sources of tissues and cells and also those of the physicians or researchers who obtain and develop these biological materials.” The intent was to offer a “range of options for congressional action related to commercialization of human biological materials, regulation of research with human subjects, and disclosure of physicians’ commercial interest in patient treatment.” [7] There was a particular focus on the biological materials that biotechnology (at the time) most frequently made us of: tissues and cells. Indeed, there is great promise in biotechnology to improve human health and life, they wrote, but with that promise also comes great responsibility, and a whole host of difficult ethical questions that have yet to yield to promising answers.

Some of the questions they raised are still, if not even more, relevant today:

* Are bodily substances “property” to be disposed of by any means one chooses, including donation or sale?
* Do property rights to their genetic identity adhere to individuals or to the species?
* Who should make the basic decisions affecting the acquisition of tissues and cells, and under what circumstances should such acquisition be permitted or denied?
* How is it that inventions incorporating human cells are patentable in the first place?
* To what extent are the issues raised by ownership of human biological materials related to commercial relationships between universities and companies?
* What are the implications of these issues for scientists, physicians, patients, volunteer research subjects, universities, and the biomedical product industry? [8]

Now, almost 30 years later, in the midst of many highly publicized court cases regarding ownership and patentability of biological materials, we are still wrestling with the very same questions, and have yet to provide satisfactory answers. Today, public ambivalence regarding the propriety of bio-banked tissues, blood samples, and cells, and the patentability of biologically engineered genes and organisms, is without doubt a justifiable anxiety. But, these issues of autonomy over our bodies and its parts (whether excised or not), laws regarding consent, and obligations to inform patients about the extent to which their bodies are made into objects for scientific research are not entirely new or unprecedented—at least not philosophically, morally, or historically. A clear echo of feminist protestations against the (de)valuation of bodies as commodities can still be heard. There have been many historical struggles against bodies being subjugated to the de facto authority of those who profit from the objectification of bodies. And, of course, these issues are certainly not limited to women’s bodies.

The advent of cell cloning and synthetic engineering of organisms not only demands adjudication of ownership, but also calls into question the very uniqueness of our bodies (ourselves). In 1970, when the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves proclaimed so resolutely that “[O]ur bodies are unique because they—us—will never occur again,” neither they nor anyone else could foresee how complex, and possibly erroneous, such a statement would be.


[1] Rebeca Skloot, “Taking the Least of You” New York Times, April 16, 2006.

Also see Skloot’s blog post April 17, 2006, “Culture Dish.”

[2] Our Bodies, Ourselves. Preface. 1973.

[3] “Women and their Bodies: A Course” Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1970. p.8.


[5] “Women and their Bodies: A Course.” Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1970, pg 9. Emphasis in original.

[6] Skloot, Rebecca. “Taking the Least of You: The Tissue-Industrial Complex.” New York Times Magazine.  April 16, 2006.  Also see, Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010.  For an excellent timeline regarding the Lacks’s story, and the commercialization of tissue samples more broadly, see:

[7] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, New Developments in Biotechnology:

Ownership of Human Tissues and Cells—Special Report, OTA-BA-337 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, March 1987), p. iii.

[8] New Developments in Biotechnology: Ownership of Human Tissues and Cells, p.3.

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