When Biotech Travels
Wednesday 25 July 2012, 9:00am - 10:30am

In August 2011, an elaborate baby-selling ring was unraveled. At the center was Theresa Erickson, formerly a prominent and highly regarded surrogacy lawyer, and accomplices Hilary Neiman and Carla Chambers, who were sending women to the Ukraine – a country with much looser regulations – to receive embryo transfer. When the surrogates returned to the United States, Erickson, Neiman, and Chambers lined up prospective parents, selling the babies for $150,000, much higher than parents usually pay for legal surrogacy.  

In September 2011, the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues concluded its investigation into the Guatemalan syphilis experiments, denouncing this “very dark chapter in the history of medical research sponsored by the U.S. government.” As the media covered the story, many reporters addressed the link between the Guatemalan case and the relocation of current drug trials to the Global South. 

In February 2012, headlines reported that Rick Perry had traveled to South Korea for an experimental stem cell treatment from a company called RNL Bio, and then later used his political power to support RNL Bio’s Texas-based affiliate Celltex, which, according to media reports, has carried out similar experimental stem cell procedures without FDA approval. 

Together, these three cases exemplify how biotechnology regularly crosses nation-state boundaries. They illustrate the flows of capital, technologies, and people that result from biotech’s transnational nature.  Human guinea-pigging, international surrogacy, and stem cell tourism are just the beginning of the list, which also includes organ trafficking, transplant tourism, egg selling, reproductive tourism, biopiracy, and others. 

At the 2011 Tarrytown meeting, a plenary session on “Global Challenges and Opportunities” included significant presentations on the international institutions that have played constructive roles in promoting responsible policies. For example, the Declaration of Istanbul sought to regulate organ trafficking and transplant tourism on the global scale. Similarly, the Council of Europe produced the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine.  

Informed by the examples brought to the table in the previous year, this 2012 session considered how transnationalism complicates biopolitical issues, as seen through the panelists’ own work. Despite the differences in the technologies and players involved, how might we understand these diverse issues in the light of the transnational dynamics they share? How do we promote safeguards and effective governance when regulation at the national level often pushes the problem somewhere else? How do we advocate safe and socially just biotechnology when its expanse grows more complex and amorphous? And finally, how might we advocate for more international governance, similar to the successful examples introduced at last year’s meeting? Presenters each gave 10 minute presentations, followed by discussion. 

Washington Irving Room