A political economy of plasma donation

Student Blood Donor Center… Higher Fee Being Paid! Photo by author

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that plasma donation centers across the country tend to have pretty steady business, and even steadier business in hard economic times like these. In terms of supply and demand, there will always be people in need of a few extra bucks and a demand for fresh, untainted blood for research and other purposes (whatever those might be).

One such donation center is conveniently located a block away from the university from which I recently graduated. I’ve probably passed by this place hundreds of times but never really considered going in, and I don’t know anyone personally who has donated there. So, out of anthropological curiosity, I ventured into the appropriately named “Student Blood Donor Center” to see what this place was all about.
My experience was like any typical blood donation session, but the environment here was different. It had an aura of what many young people refer to as “sketch” or “sketchiness”. The building was old and brown and had no windows; it reminded me of a dive-bar or pool hall. The waiting room was plain with only a few posters on the wall and no reading materials or easily accessible information about the company or their services. Even more striking is that they don’t tell you up front how much they pay for donations, how much blood they take or any details about the process; it’s more like you just go in and do what you need to do and leave with $35 in your hand. In fact, one could probably go in and come out of this place without ever knowing such pertinent information as what happens to the blood, the name of the company collecting it, etc. It struck me as odd that the technician who took my blood didn’t know this information himself.
While I was having my blood drawn, I did find out out the following: donors at this location more often tend to be men than women, and more often students than non-students (at least when school is in session). The blood is not used for transfusions or surgeries, as it’s illegal to pay for blood that goes to a patient in need. It makes sense that they would locate this place right next to a college with tens of thousands of students, many of whom probably fit the “broke college student” profile and are willing to do just about anything to make a quick buck to pay bills or have a bit of spending money. There was no offer of snacks or drinks during or after the donation to help with blood sugar levels.
I would love to get a better understanding of the specific reasons (financial or other) for why individuals donate their blood and/or plasma for money. Why do people choose to donate, and is donating blood an alternative to other forms of economic activity or ways of procuring income? How often do people donate? What do they use the money for? As the Roanoke Times, The Times Daily and the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel explain, reasons can range from a need for gas money or groceries or an inability to find employment to a desire for up-to-date health stats, which many donation centers provide to donors free of charge. Each of these articles also notes that plasma donations for money have indeed risen since the recession began. On the flip-side, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Racine Journal Times have linked the recession to a recent drop in voluntary blood donations and a shortage in blood/plasma for recipients, citing layoffs of donor center staff and donor hesitancy to take time off from work to donate.
I think this topic leads to larger questions related to the political-economic implications of donating (selling) plasma (and other body parts, or even bodies) in hard times. For example, how has the recession impacted individual motivations for donating and the overall donation rate? How has this impacted donation centers that collect blood for transfusions and surgeries rather than for medical industry research? What are the economic and structural issues that drive people do donate? How do they view the donation process, and do they have cultural, emotional or religious qualms about selling something that’s coming from their bodies? If so, what compels them to sell anyway? Is it always some form of desperation?
Another thing that caught my eye was a statement on the brochure they give you once you’re done donating that tells you what you should/shouldn’t do right after donating, how long you have to wait to do physical activity, etc.:
“On behalf of Interstate Blood Bank, Inc. and the medical industry, thank you for your blood donation.”
The language and word choice of “donation” to describe the selling of plasma to a for-profit research company is quite interesting, as is the reference to the “medical industry” that is benefiting off of the endless supply of fresh plasma in exchange for what could be a week’s worth of groceries or Friday night’s pizza and Natty Light.
This experience also brought to mind an article I read in my Culture and Consumerism class by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2000) entitled The Global Traffic in Human Organs (Current Anthropology Volume 41 No. 2). The article discusses the late 20th century global trade network in bodies and body parts and its relation to the desires, needs and perceptions of scarcity of both donors and recipients. Scheper-Hughes argues that the global transplant organ economy “is a blend of altruism and commerce, of science and magic, of gifting, barter, and theft, of choice and coercion.” She posits that this world-wide trade has resulted in reconceptualized notions of what a body is as well as the relationship between bodies, body parts and people on a global scale; the market provides opportunities for destitute people in developing nations to donate organs in exchange for money, and the chance for those who can afford such black market commodities a chance at what can essentially be considered “life”.
Both agency and structure play a part as individual donors take risks and make decisions to donate body parts with the increasing demand for healthy organs by the world’s elite, who have access to a steady supply through the privatization of this lucrative, illegal economy. As Scheper-Hughes points out, “the flow of organs follows the modern routes of capital: from South to North, from Third to First World, from poor to rich, from black and brown to white, and from female to male.” This clearly has many ethical, medical and social implications. One example of how this practice preys upon the poor comes from India: poor families here have been known to trade body parts for dowries in order to secure good marriages for their daughters. She also quotes a man from Brazil, who stated: “I am willing to sell any organ of my body that is not vital to my survival and that could help save another person’s life in exchange for an amount of money that will allow me to feed my family…It could be a kidney or an eye because I have two of them.”

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