Parts of the process

Without your body parts, who are you? Well, possibly richer – or in jail.

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When I tell people I’m looking into how much I’d get for selling my body, it raises a few eyebrows. When I add that I’ve been told mine could be worth millions, they look even more surprised.

I might get around £80 for my long hair, despite the split ends

I wish I could say I’d had to insure my smile for £22 million like Julia Roberts, that my bottom was worth £21 million à la Kim Kardashian, or that my legs were valued at a dazzling Taylor Swift-esque £98 million – each. But the reality is more surprising: if I stripped and processed every ounce of fat, every gram of human fluid and every litre of blood, threw in my essential organs and non-essential body hair, excretions and clippings the total value could spiral into millions. In theory, that would make us all a living, breathing pound sign, which starts to sound very seductive in today’s austerity Britain. But of course, there’s a catch: it’s likely you’ll be worth a lot more dead than alive.

It’s difficult to estimate the cost of a body by individual parts. The big question is: who’s buying? The price depends on whether a part is sold for specimen use, transplants or on the black market. Attempts to ascribe a value to a human body put the total at anything from around £3,700 to in excess of £34 million.

This, of course, assumes you’re willing to do without the absolute essentials. Your heart is said to be worth £425,000, lungs £206,000, and ligaments and bones £3,600. Blood – we have about 10 pints each – is worth £225 a pint while skin is estimated to be worth £6 per square inch (and we have on average 3,168 square inches per body). Once you’ve skinned and scraped though, there’s not much left.

But if you don’t want to desiccate yourself just yet, there’s an active market in the UK in what can be replenished.

Legally, hair can be sold. Websites in the UK offer £60-£200 for top-quality locks that are more than 19 inches long (less for shorter hair). I might get around £80 for my long hair, despite the split ends. And while I’m not a nursing mother, I’m told that those with excess breast milk (it’s estimated around 25 additional fluid ounces can be produced per day by some women) could sell it fresh or frozen for an average of £1.60 per fluid ounce – that’s £14,600 a year. Men don’t miss out either: they are compensated £35 per visit, up to a maximum of £750 per cycle, for their sperm.

Some sales reflect a genuine need, while others may fall into the fetish category. On UK websites for mothers advertising their breast milk, woman are categorised as to whether they’re prepared to sell to the opposite sex. And while it’s against the terms of service on eBay to offer any human-derived products for sale, on more unsavoury, unregulated corners of the internet, you can sell urine, fingernails and even armpit hair – all
of which are marketed in a sexualised way. I might only bin my used ear buds, but I wouldn’t want to think of them being enjoyed by someone else – no matter how much money I’d get in return.

You can make better money by taking part in medical trials. Places across the north of England conduct clinical trials to find cures for conditions ranging from eczema to Alzheimer’s. One such study requires healthy male or female volunteers age 18-50 to take part in a four-week screening period, with three two-night residential stays in a clinical unit in Manchester. The volunteers “must be willing to have blood samples taken throughout the study”. In return, they are reimbursed £1,920, plus travel expenses. So far, so good.

But things can, and sometimes do, go disastrously wrong during clinical trials.  Between 2010 and 2015, a total of 7,187 people were left ill after suffering adverse reactions when they agreed to test new medicines. Of these, 493 reactions were immediately life-threatening, and 197 resulted in “significant disability or incapacity”, according to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. So, on reflection, I scratch that option off my list.

If you’re really serious about making money from your body, and don’t mind some invasive surgery and dodgy back-street dealings, you could try to sell your organs on the black market, I’m told. How much did you say I could get for my kidney? I ask hopefully, thinking of my outstanding student loan.

In Britain, of course, it’s illegal to sell human body parts for profit, under the Human Tissues Act (HTA) 2004. It’s an offence to give or receive a “reward” – money, gift or other benefit with a financial value that influences the decision to donate an organ – for the supply or offer of human material for transplantation.

When a British man put his kidney on eBay in 2003 to raise money for his daughter who has cerebral palsy, he received “serious” bids of up to £95,000 before the ad was removed and the sale withdrawn. If convicted, the penalty can be imprisonment for up to three years, a fine or both.

In 2007, Dan Tuck, 26, living in the West Midlands, became the first person in the UK to be convicted under the act for “inviting the supply of human material for transplant”. He’d posted an ad in a chatroom as a way to pay off gambling debts. “I want to sell my kidney – this
is 100% genuine,” he wrote. “I am a white male of completely perfect health.” He agreed a price of £24,000. The sale was cancelled, and he received a suspended jail sentence. Six months later, he took his own life.

When it comes to the market in illegally acquired organs, kidneys are the most sought after, due to a rise in “diseases of affluence” directly related to a western lifestyle, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Their limited availability means the black market is booming. According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 7,000 kidneys are illegally obtained by traffickers each year.

The repercussions can be serious and costly. Donors may be left with dangerous, painful complications that could require extensive follow-up care, leaving the donor in a more financially precarious situation than before selling his or her organ.

So if selling my spare kidney is also out of the question, what else is there? The most valuable thing that can be sold legally while alive is fertility. A woman donating her eggs in England will receive £750 compensation. But the process is demanding, with daily hormone injections for two weeks that can play havoc with the body, before undergoing invasive “harvesting” procedures.

Harris argues that we should pay for live organ donations

Of course, in the US, egg donation is a mainstream, competitive market. There, a woman with a degree could sell her genetic make-up for around £10,500 per cycle. Donors post pictures and a profile online. For page after page, almost every woman has a dazzling smile and glossy hair, hoping to tempt prospective buyers. The money received is often used to pay a credit card bill or fund university. But financial reward as big as that means that women tempted to go for a third or fourth cycle may ignore what’s best for their bodies for the sake of the money.

Where the trade in body parts gets really valuable is when parts are shared to save or improve the quality of another life. Although a square inch of human skin might be said to be worth £6 a square inch, for Katie Piper it was priceless. Skin donated from dead bodies kept her alive after her ex-boyfriend arranged to have her attacked with sulphuric acid, age 25, nearly 10 years ago.

“The doctors had to remove all my damaged tissue. Before they operated I wore cadaver skin to protect against infection. It came from several deceased bodies and was stapled on, like a patchwork: some black, some Asian, some white,” she says.

“You could tell that some was from old people and some from younger. I had it all over my face and chest for a couple of days. Then doctors removed it, threw it away and grafted live skin from my own body to the areas that had been burnt. The cadaver skin saved my life.”

The former model, now a campaigner and TV presenter, also received a cornea from an anonymous donor, which helped restore sight in her left eye. Corneas are relatively easy to transplant and easy to ship. Piper had lived with a damaged cornea for three years, and “was in pain with my eyes constantly”. The cornea she received, from a deceased male, was “a great gift,” she says.

If we paid a fair price for live organ transplants, there would be fewer waiting-list deaths, says John Harris, an ethicist at Manchester University and author of the book How To Be Good. Harris argues that we should pay for live organ donations in order to increase supply. “Fair remuneration does not negate altruism – and overall, the NHS would save money,” he says.

“There is this idea that money is sordid. It is not. People are dying of organ failure – and there are millions of organs out there going to waste.”

Around 500 people died last year while waiting for a replacement heart, lung, kidney or liver – and 6,500 patients remain on the organ transplant waiting list. Last October, Theresa May announced plans to move to a donation system of presumed consent – meaning everyone is presumed to agree to the removal and reuse of body parts after their death unless they opt out.

“The system we have now, not paying people, is not altruistic at all,” says Harris. “We operate a system in which everyone is paid except the poor donor. The surgeons and nurses are paid, the transplant co-ordinators are paid – and the recipient of an organ receives a priceless gift. Only the poor donor is expected to act altruistically. This is neither fair, nor reasonable, nor effective.”

Harris says we might have to experiment with prices to see what is most effective. “At today’s prices, a kidney could be sold for £30,000. It sounds like a huge sum, but the average cost to the NHS of dialysis, per patient per year, is £35,000. A transplanted organ should last at least five years.”

Under this system, people could be induced to sell organs who would not otherwise do so. “Of course, somebody who needs money would be more inclined to sell. But people are induced by poverty to do all sorts of things that have no benefit to society. We do not do the poor any favours by denying them the chance to make money from assets they possess, and to do good at the same time by potentially saving a life.”

My adventure in selling my body parts has ended with little but an offer of a few tenners for my locks. While it sounds like there’s a lot of money to be made from a human body, in reality, there’s very little you could fetch a decent price for that you don’t actually need to stay alive – or wouldn’t be worried about ending up in the wrong hands. Best to give what you can for free. So next time I donate blood, I’ll try not to look at that dark red pint and think of the £225 I could be charging.

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