Try to put a price on the human body. To start with, many people are willing to donate a pint of blood. But a human egg or a kidney can fetch thousands of dollars. Bidding started at $25,000 for a kidney during an online auction in September. Once auctioneers noticed what was going on-hoax or not-they put a stop to the bidding. That’s because selling an organ could land you in jail under federal law. Still, someone was willing to take that chance. The last bid had climbed to $5.7 million.

But human eggs go virtually unregulated. When a wealthy couple took out advertisements last year in college newspapers for an egg, no authority stepped in to prosecute. Even though the going rate in infertility clinics ranges from $1,300 to $5,000, the amount isn’t considered a purchase price. The woman is compensated only for her time and trouble.

Myra Collins, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, says the exchange is an economic one, purchase or not, that comes with expectations about value and product quality. “When you start thinking of bodies as resources and money changes hands, then you start thinking about questions of ownership and how much do you want to pay,” she says.

The couple pegged the value of a human egg at $50,000. Their demands were specific: an Ivy League student, 5’ 10”, who scored at least 1400 on her SAT college entrance exams.

When she first considered the story and its ethical implications, Collins thought the economic view made a certain amount of sense. After all, don’t we own our bodies? In the West, working for something usually means you’ve earned the right to do with it as you please. With a twinkle in her eye, Collins asks, “Did I work for my body? Well, probably not as much as my mother did.”

Collins says the idea of ownership is getting stickier. She points to ethical questions posed by the developing market in human tissues. “I’m struck by how valuable human materials have become to the biotechnology industry,” she says. “We think of the human body as beyond price, yet companies expect to compete in the marketplace and expect to pay for the raw materials they need.”

Even malignant tumors have a market. Researchers often save cancer ous samples-tissue and blood-after surgery. Now these samples are proving valuable for biotech firms looking to profit from new treatments. The question is whether patients who provide samples should, at the least, be told about their potential commercial value and then perhaps compensated.

In California, a patient whose spleen was removed during cancer treatment sued his doctor and the University of California because they used his spleen and other tissues to make money without telling him. He claimed the spleen belonged to him, even after its removal. Therefore, he had a right to a share of the profits. The court did not agree. But it did rule that the doctor should have revealed his financial interest in the tissue.

The human body as source material has become very useful and lucrative. So why does everyone involved except for the patient seem to profit? Some say waste body products have no value until researchers make them useful. Still, someone has to provide the raw material because not just any tissue will do.

Last fall, Collins and Mia Doron, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics, pulled together a seminar for second-year medical students on the human body as a marketable resource. Each week students discussed ethical and market issues, such as what happens when eggs and sperm go up for sale and wombs are offered for rent. They also debated the hottest developments in biotech, such as embryo research and cloning.

Collins says the more she knows, the less sure she is about a clearly defined right or wrong answer. “I can’t say in good conscience that I’m still the hard-nosed pragmatist that I once was.”

Doron, who also holds a master’s degree in theology, says her views have also changed. “I used to believe putting a price on body parts and selling them to strangers was wrong,” she says. “It seemed contrary to valuing what makes us who we are.” Then Doron began to see how work and bodies overlap. She says her job-making the rounds in a hospital’s newborn nursery-requires that she give completely of her body’s time and attention to the task, not unlike a surrogate mother renting her womb.

Mia’s background is in religious studies, the relationship between bodies and souls,” Collins says. “I’m coming at it from a view of pathology, from the meat of it.” Collins is intrigued by how bodies fit to gether. “The first time I ever tried to take a frog apart I was tiny,” she says. “When I was a kid growing up on the farm in Union County, my dad used to go frog gigging at night. We’d bring them back in gunny sacks and dress them. They’re delicious when fried. We would pull the skin off in one piece to reveal the muscles and organs beneath. I was fascinated. Still am.”

She studied zoology and biochemistry in college and pathology in medical school. But it wasn’t until a residency rotation in the blood bank at UNC Hospitals that she put it all together.

She started hearing from people who asked about their donors, whether they were good and kind people. “It suddenly brought me back to something I’d heard before about early blood use,” she says. “People would drink the blood of gladiators for courage; or if someone was overly excited, he’d be encouraged to take the blood of lambs.”

Blood also builds community. Collins says the simple act of donating blood brings together people from all over. If you ask them why they do it, she says, it’s because they want to give something to their community. “And I can trust this community to provide for me when I need it,” she says.

An organ donor does the same. Even egg or sperm donations can foster a sense of community when the donor is related or close to the parents-to-be. But when the third party is paid and anonymous, Collins says, the ethical issues become hazier.

Our meanings get confused when the creation of a child is at stake, Collins says. A gamete-an egg or a sperm-contains a person’s genetic heritage. Can you sell that? she asks. It’s not as straightforward as selling blood so someone else can use the red cells for a few days to carry oxygen. “There’s going to be a child resulting from this,” she says.

Doron, who specializes in care for newborns, says the language used to describe human egg donations sets off an alarm.

The fact that we don’t want to say they’re selling eggs speaks to some discomfort,” she says. “Shouldn’t we call a spade a spade and step back and ask what we’re doing here?”

Doron and Collins agree that marketing some human products makes sense. Blood plasma, an important raw material for pharmaceutical companies, has garnered commercial interest.

But at their root, the ethics questions stem from what it means to say we own our bodies. While the Western idea of ownership seems pretty easy to understand, Collins says there are some other ways to think about our corpus. One idea is that since humans are born into a family and a community, it follows that our bodies should be viewed as community resources. That would support organ donating, but not ordering up a set of gametes on the Internet.

Perhaps the biggest problem lies with new technology that the two scholars say has presented us with choices we don’t know how to evaluate. Doron describes a woman walking by the river who spots a drowning child. Does she dive in and attempt a rescue, or not? Hero or coward, the woman becomes implicated. In the same way, a couple hoping to conceive can face difficult choices. If they’re unsuccessful, do they buy an egg or rent a womb? “They may not want to have that choice, but they do now,” Doron says.

Collins predicts that in the next few years enormous changes in biotechnology will affect how we view ourselves. “I can already feel the spray of the huge waterfall we’re heading for,” she says.

Christopher Hammond was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.