Right on cue, the union representing employees at Canadian Blood Services (which has a government-granted monopoly on whole blood collection in Canada, outside of Quebec) proclaimed that safety will somehow be jeopardized if plasma is collected by anyone other than a public facility. Other opponents have attempted to sway public opinion by arguing that payment for plasma is somehow exploitative. Both criticisms are smoke-and-mirrors. I know from experience.
I have the blood that everyone wants. I am heterosexual, monogamous, and in good health with no underlying medical conditions. I don’t travel to regions of the world where strange infections persist. I’ve had no recent surgeries or dental work. I take no drugs. And I rarely—if ever—get sick. Oh yes, I have no fear of needles.
Despite these ideal attributes, I rarely donate. The entire process is a bother. It inevitably consumes the most productive hours of the day. Even though it involves only a small measure of discomfort, it always seems to negatively impact upon my work and personal endeavors. For me, altruism alone is not a sufficient incentive.
But there was a time in my life when I was attending school in the US, living off loans and struggling to pay the bills. Financially, those were stressful times. That’s why I was delighted by the opportunity to earn $45 per week.
Down the street from my budget apartment was a private medical clinic that collected plasma. The clinic gave first-time donors a thorough health examination. And after a lengthy interview to assess risk factors, donors who qualified were permitted to give plasma twice a week. The first visit in each seven-day period earned me $20, and the second earned $25.
I like to think that my plasma donations helped someone who needed it. Although I can’t claim to have had purely altruistic motives, I doubt the recipient of the life-saving medical products my plasma was used to create cared much about my motivation.
On other hand, the money was a boon for me. It meant that I could afford better food, put gas in my car, and maybe even go on an occasional evening out with my wife. And just for giving plasma—something that regenerates quickly. This is why it annoys me when I hear the word “exploitation” bandied about by those who oppose paying donors. Being paid to give plasma was a great help to me at that time in my life. And I am certain that it could be for others too. There is simply nothing exploitative about it at all.
First, I was in no way being abused by those paying me—if that’s what is meant by “exploit”, the criticism is ludicrous. The plasma was mine. The money was theirs. They wanted my plasma and I wanted their money, so we came to a mutually beneficial agreement to exchange the two. We both got what we wanted. No abusive exploitation.
Second, if anything, it was me doing the exploiting. Even though I made an effort to lead a healthy lifestyle—eating quality foods and exercising, while avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and the like—many of the physical characteristics that made me a good candidate were given me by my parents. Yet I reaped the benefit. I exploited this resource.
Third, how is paying someone for plasma more exploitative than offering no compensation? With or without payment, plasma donations are always voluntary. If either is exploitative, expecting donors to give plasma without payment—perhaps by inducing guilt or shame—seems more so to me.
The concern regarding safety is a sham—most plasma available in Canada already comes from donors paid in private clinics. Health Canada says approximately 70% of the plasma products available in Canada originate from such donors. Most of them are Americans. So either demand for plasma products in Canada outstrips the capacity of Canadians to donate, or Canadians have insufficient incentive. My experience makes me suspect the latter.
Evidently, altruism alone cannot supply all the blood products that Canadians need. It was the financial incentive that motivated me to donate, and my donations likely saved lives. That’s a win-win solution that should not be rejected under pressure from vested interests.
This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post in July 2013.