Human growth hormone and the temptations of biomedical enhancement

Sociol Health Illn. 2004 Mar;26(2):184-215. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2004.00386.x.


It is likely that humans have sought enhancements for themselves or their children for as long as they have recognised that improvements in individuals are a possibility. One genre of self-improvement in modern society can be called 'biomedical enhancements'. These include drugs, surgery and other medical interventions aimed at improving the mind, body or performance. This paper uses the case of human growth hormone (hGH) to examine the social nature of enhancements. Synthetic hGH was developed in 1985 by the pharmaceutical industry and was approved by the FDA for very specific uses, particularly treatment of growth hormone deficiency. However, it has also been promoted for a number of 'off label' uses, most of which can be deemed enhancements. Drugs approved for one treatment pave the way for use as enhancements for other problems. Claims have been made for hGH as a treatment for idiopathic shortness, as an anti-ageing agent and to improve athletic performance. Using the hGH case, we are able to distinguish three faces of biomedical enhancement: normalisation, repair and performance edge. Given deeply ingrained social and individual goals in American society, the temptations of biomedical enhancements provide inducement for individuals and groups to modify their situation. We examine the temptations of enhancement in terms of issues such as unnaturalness, fairness, risk and permanence, and shifting social meanings. In our conclusions, we outline the potentials and pitfalls of biomedical enhancement.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / drug effects
  • Biomedical Enhancement / ethics*
  • Biomedical Enhancement / methods*
  • Body Height / drug effects
  • Drug Labeling / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Female
  • Human Growth Hormone / administration & dosage*
  • Human Growth Hormone / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk
  • Social Justice
  • Social Values
  • Sports
  • United States
  • United States Food and Drug Administration


  • Human Growth Hormone