Accepted paper:

Stem cell tourism to China and clinical labour: the challenges of biomedical governance through 'neoliberalism as exception'


Jane Brophy (Monash University)

Paper short abstract:

The market for unproven stem cell treatments in China represents a space governed by neoliberal conceptions of market forces and the ‘right to try’. This paper utilises the concept of ‘clinical labour’ to problematise regulatory approaches that addresses moral concerns rather than power imbalances.

Paper long abstract:

Stem cell tourism has been a site of fierce ethical and moral debate. In China and internationally, supporters of commercial, unproven stem cell treatments (SCTs) point to the promissory nature of the treatments and a patient's 'right to try'. Criticisms of the 'failure' of legal regulatory frameworks in China seem to be underpinned by traditional notions of power structures corresponding to liberal nation states. Ong's (2006) 'neoliberalism as exception' problematises notions of power and sovereignty in Asia, and outlines how China's loosening of sovereignty in some areas has been deployed to aid economic development through international partnerships and investment. Within China the market for unproven SCTs has been developed by local and foreign clinicians, scientists, patients and businesspeople to take advantage of this space of 'exception'. However, while the market for unproven SCTs in China tends to be framed by patients and providers in neoliberal terms (providing choice and circumventing bureaucracy), the lack of regulation also represents Ong's 'exceptions to neoliberalism', as protections from exploitation are also removed. Based on ethnographic research undertaken in China, this paper explores whether the removal of such protections in the context of a commercial market for SCTs is a form of clinical labour (Waldby & Cooper 2008), whereby people undergoing treatments become a generative site for bioknowledge and biocapital. The disarticulation of power and biolegitimacy in the commercial market for SCTs may create difficulties for regulatory approaches with a strong emphasis on ethical oversight rather than underlying power structures.

panel Imm03
Bio-legitimacy and mobilities 2.0: a challenge to human rights?