Every two seconds, someone in the world requires a blood transfusion. And where do you get one? At a blood bank. However, it’s an odd idea – A blood bank or a sperm bank or a breast milk bank. What’s even weirder is these banks work and depend on donations.
“Our perception of the human body has changed dramatically since the inception of body banks in the early 20th century. One hundred years ago, the human body was considered an integrated, unique entity. Today, we think of the body as comprised of individual interchangeable components—of genes and proteins, of blood, gametes, and organs that we could readily take out of one body and place into the hands of someone else to use,” says Kara Swanson, an associate professor of Law at Northeastern University.
In her book, “Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm”, she explains the origins and consequences of the debate “Are body products like blood, milk, and sperm marketable commodities, gifts to help others, or both?” and discusses the history of body banks, the social consequences of body banking, and the path to a more efficient and less exploitative distribution of human body products.
“What we now call body banks date back to around 1910 and not much earlier, in part because you need a refrigerator or freezer to store almost any body product,” Swanson says. The first attempts to bank body products involved breast milk to be packed in ice and taken on board in the Boston Floating Hospital—the only shipping-based hospital in the U.S. back in 1910.
Later during World War II, the American Red Cross recruited volunteers from all over the U.S. to donate their blood to treat overseas sailors and soldiers. And that’s how blood banks came into the picture. The practice of storing donated blood instead of paying professional donors, made it possible to save patients who would otherwise die if they could not afford a paid donor.
However, over time, such practices evolved to draw profits from the marketing of human body products and exploitation of donors. Today, we have become trapped into asking whether we should choose to either ban sales of human body products or allow them to be sold on the free market. “Using lessons from history, I argue in my book that we should think more creatively about the sale of body products, rather than assuming that cash payments induce exploitation. What we should do is flip the question, asking how we can conceive of a market in body products that maximises benefit for both the buyer and the seller” says Swanson.