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The legal position on the classification of human tissue in South Africa: Can tissues be owned?

S Mahomed
M Nöthling-Slabbert
MS Pepper


The ownership of tissue samples donated for medical research is an ongoing subject of dispute. Some advocates assert that patients have ongoing ownership rights in their tissues, including an unfettered right to determine what happens to their tissue sample. Researchers argue that giving patients property rights in their samples will turn the human body and body parts into a commodity and bring research to a halt. The question of the human body as property involves complex and philosophical dimensions. The law displays an uneasiness in making sense of the human body in the context of ownership and property, as the notion of owning oneself (and one’s tissues) implies that persons are able to objectify their selves, and in the process become susceptible to objectification by others. The creation of commercial products from human tissue has generated very difficult legal and ethical questions that have no clear, universally accepted answers.