My Body, My Bank

56 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2015 Last revised: 27 Jul 2015

Date Written: March 24, 2015


This essay reviews Kara Swanson’s "Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America" (Harvard University Press, 2014) and uses it as an opportunity to interpolate the history and theory of the commodification of human body parts in America.

Swanson’s book is a meticulously researched history of the banking industries in human milk, blood, and sperm in America from 1908 till into our century. It is an extremely useful read for anyone working in the field of bioethics, commodification, and property. It is exhaustive (perhaps occasionally too much so) when it tackles blood and milk banking — the latter a banking system that much less has been written on. It is less good on sperm banking. It deserves much praise and a little critique. I try to give both in this Review.

This Review is divided into two parts. The first tries to capture in short form the story Swanson aims to tell. She focuses on the blood banking industry, giving it four of the six substantive chapters, with a chapter and a third for milk and a short chapter for sperm. In my Review I follow a similar path. I also specifically highlight a few of the important contributions of the book, especially in the relationship of product liability law with the development of conceptions of bio-property, something she does deftly that strikes me as quite a new story to tell.

The second Part of this Review focuses on critique, layered from milder to deeper, though many of these are disguised praise (in that I see things in Swanson’s account that she may not see!). My critique centers on four elements: (1) she could do more to clarify the role (or lack thereof) for law in the story; (2) the central notion of “the bank” and the idea of a metaphor taken from finance is a bit undertheorized in the work; (3) the book could use more dialogue with the commodification discourse more generally, especially its more nuanced articulations (this is the ubiquitous here is how I would have written your book section of the Review); and (4) the book’s take on the role of gender and body banking is underdeveloped.

None of these critiques, though, mar what is itself an excellent book.

Keywords: commodification, blood banks, sperm banks, milk banks, legal history, products liability

JEL Classification: B1, B2, I1, I11, I10, I18, K11

Suggested Citation

Cohen, I. Glenn, My Body, My Bank (March 24, 2015). Texas Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, 2015. Available at SSRN:

I. Glenn Cohen (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1525 Massachusetts Avenue
Griswold Hall 503
Cambridge, 02138
United States

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