National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
National Geographic Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling, holds up hair sold for cash, as she embarks on a journey to discover which parts of the human body are marketable and how much they are really worth.
updated 4/12/2004 11:34:50 AM ET 2004-04-12T15:34:50

For many people making money -- and how to make more of it -– is an everyday struggle. Some people use an obvious yet controversial source of earning potential: their own body parts.

The human body is a living factory that can manufacture products that no laboratory can recreate. From kidneys to hair, to eggs, sperm and blood, many body parts can be sold through both legal and illegal avenues, and the dollar value increases with the amount of risk involved.

For those who cash in, the body can be a source of income that can be tapped again and again. And for those in need of life-saving body parts, the global trade in organs opens a whole new visceral world of ethical and legal issues.

Below are ways people sell themselves for cash. For those willing to part with those products, real money is at stake. But how much?

Probably the easiest thing on one’s body to sell is one’s hair. There are even websites where one can auction off one’s hair. The market for human hair goes way beyond the web. It’s a multi-million dollar business, thanks to man’s eternal obsession with beauty.

Hair is one of the body’s wonder products. It can stretch up to 30 percent before snapping, yet it’s as strong as copper wire of the same width. The texture of hair depends on ethnicity. Among the most coveted is Russian hair – it’s soft, fine, and often blond.

Human hair wigs can range from $400 to $5000, but if you want to sell your hair to a merchant, you’ll get 5 to 10 dollars an ounce.

Every year, the U.S. imports millions of pounds of hair. Some of it comes from temples in Southern India, where people shave their heads not for cash, but for something they feel is far more valuable – divine blessing. So next time you buy extensions, remember than while you may end up looking good, some else might have gotten a gift from the gods.

Potential income: $10 to 500, depending on length, texture, color

But there’s no product no laboratory is ever likely to make from scratch: The human baby.

Some of the millions of Americans who want children have difficulty conceiving. Science can help – but not without the essential ingredients. Infertility science has been around for decades, but in the last 20 years, it has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar business. For around $270 a sample, you can buy a biological father.

Cryobank, one of the largest repository of frozen sperm, lets clients chose exactly the characteristics they’re looking for – from ethnicity to education.

They are quite selective though: they only accept 5 percent of sperm donor applicants. The screening process is critical –- when a woman buys a sperm, she’s buying the man’s entire genetic and medical history. To ensure that, donors have to pass blood tests, a full physical, and genetic screenings. Clients can learn everything, except the donor’s identity which is kept confidential.

If one’s sperm is checked for a healthy sperm count, and can survive being in liquid nitrogen overnight at negative 320 degrees, and passes some medical exams, one can earn $75 a sample, up to $900 a month until a man’s liquid assets have produced 10 babies.

Potential income: $500/1,600 a month

Egg donation
Most egg donors earn from 2-7,000 a month for a month’s work -– but it’s not for the squeamish. Every day, the egg donor has to inject herself with fertility drugs. Drugs turn a woman’s normal menstrual cycle into something like a human egg harvest.

Once a month, a woman’s ovaries prepare to produce eggs. Usually, only one egg ripens at a time. Fertility drugs encourage several eggs to ripen. The extra eggs are important because even with modern invitro fertilization methods, many implanted embryos fail to latch onto a receipient’s womb.

After four weeks of daily shots, the woman’s eggs are ready for harvest and undergoes a 10-minute operation to remove them. The surgery isn’t risk-free. There’s always the danger of injury or infection.

Compensation: $2,000 – 7,000

Providing the raw materials for human life is one way to make a little cash. But some women take it 9 months further, acting as incubators for babies that will never be theirs.

Being a surrogate mother is nine months of often-grueling work. Women endure doctor appointments and the usual toll of pregnancy. The average woman pack on 25 to 30 pounds, not to mention morning sickness, back pain, and the possibility of complications at birth. 

The womb is the ultimate life machine -– but renting it out is  controversial. Some states ban any surrogacy for profit. Still, more than a thousand babies are born to surrogates every year.

Compensation: $10,000 to $30,000

Giving up vital organs

What if you could save someone’s life by giving up a part of yourself you don’t need to survive? Would you do it for money? Or as an act of goodwill? That’s the ethical and moral dilemma of organ donation. Selling kidneys is illegal in the U.S. and most countries ban the trade.

The human body can offer up several vital organs. These little machines of life can keep doing their jobs even in another body. Among the precious of these organs is the kidney.

The kidney is the body’s blood filter, eliminating waste products and keeping our chemistry in balance. Since we’re all born with two kidneys, it is possible to donate one while we’re still alive.

Worldwide, around a million patients are waiting for donated kidneys. The average waiting time for a kidney is thee years, so some break the law to obtain them.

Most countries ban the trade, but with so many lives on the line, black market kidneys can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. One person even tried to sell his/her kidney on e-bay. The starting bid was $25,000. In just eight days, desperate patients drove the price into the millions before the company blocked the sale.

Going rate: $1,000 to 20,000 ILLEGALLY

As a factory for unique, life-saving products, the human body may never be equaled. And while many of these parts can come with a pricetag, selling them often generates controversy. But even for those who are willing to cash in, it’s not always just about the money. Many are happy to give the gift of life -– or beauty -– and find that that is priceless.


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