Cannibalism: Thriving in America

Miscellany 14: Cannibalism in America

Copyright © 2006 Joseph George Caldwell. All rights reserved. Posted at Internet website .

Cannibalism — Alive and Well in America

A few years ago, my wife and I were staying in a tourist resort near Etosha Pan in Namibia. At lunch, my wife asked the hostess what would be on the menu for the evening meal. The hostess — a very gracious lady from Germany — explained that her husband would “harvest” a giraffe from the lodge property that afternoon, and that giraffe would be the main course.

My wife was very surprised at this use of the word, “to harvest.” Previously, she had thought of “harvesting” as the collection of food that had been grown by man, and that the killing of wildlife should not be referred to as “harvesting.” Well, it appears that our hostess’ use of the term was quite correct. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition defines the noun harvest as: (1) the season for gathering in agricultural crops; (2) the act or process of gathering in a crop; (3) (a) a mature crop (as of grain or fruit); yield; (b) the quantity of a natural product gathered in a single season (deer crop, ice crop); (4) an accumulated store or productive result; and the verb to harvest as (1) (a) to gather in (a crop); reap; (b) to gather, catch, hunt, or kill (as salmon, oysters, or deer) for human use, sport, or population control; © to remove or extract (as living cells, tissues, or organs) from culture or a living or recently deceased body, especially for transplanting; (2) (a) to accumulate a store of; (b) to win by achievement.

On the February 3, 2006, edition of the NBC Today show, hostess Katy Couric presented a feature on a “domino” transplant operation, in which one baby received the heart and lungs of a baby who had just died, and a second baby received the heart from the heart-and-lung recipient. The act of removing the dead baby’s organs was referred to as “harvesting” those organs. As in the case of the giraffe, the use of the term “harvesting” to refer to the removal of organs from dead babies had a rather “jarring” effect.

In both of the preceding instances, the term “harvest” is somewhat of a euphemism. The “harvesting” of the giraffe would better have been described as “killing” or “slaughtering” a giraffe for food, and the taking of body parts from one dead human baby in order to extend the life of another human baby would have better been described as “cannibalization.”

On the Today show, Ms. Couric asked the mother of the baby receiving the heart and lungs from a donor baby how she felt about what was happening. Her response was that she had felt guilty praying for a heart and lungs for her baby, since she knew that that was tantamount to praying for the death of another baby (i.e., the donor). When you get into cannibalism, there are some difficult moral choices.

The consumption of body parts from cadavers in medical operations has exploded in the United States. When I was a boy, people were repulsed at the idea of cannibalism, which, at that time, was limited to consuming human tissue by eating. Even when circumstances were exceptional, such as in the case of a shipwreck or plane crash in a remote area, people recoiled from the thought of desecrating the dead by consuming their flesh.

Today, in the United States, a billion-dollar economy has grown out of the cannibalizing of dead bodies for parts.

Wait a minute, you may protest. Cannibalism refers just to eating of one’s own species, you may claim. Not so. The following definitions appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (1996). Cannibalize: (1) to take salvageable parts from (as a disabled machine) for use in building or repairing another machine; (2) to make use of (a part taken from one thing) in building or repairing something else. Cannibalism: (1) the usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by a human being; (2) the eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of the same kind; (3) an act of cannibalizing something. Cannibal: one that eats the flesh of its own kind. To eat means to consume. According to these definitions, the use of parts from one body in another is cannibalizing the dead body, and the user, who has consumed the dead part, is a cannibal.

The only difference between the cannibalization in the case of the shipwreck and the cannibalization taking place in our hospitals is that no money was involved in the former, and lots of money is involved in the latter. Once you start to worship Mammon, nothing remains sacred. Our society frowned on cannibalizing human corpses as ghoulish when no money was to be made, but now promotes it with enthusiasm when large amounts of money are in the offing.

Joseph George Caldwell (PhD, Statistics, U of N Carolina at Chapel Hill; BS, Math, Carnegie-Mellon U); planetary management at