Blood-Wise: The Complexities of the Blood Drive

Iolanthe Brooks, ’15

Anyone who claims that BHSEC has no school spirit has probably never seen the community-wide enthusiasm that accompanies the annual Student Union blood drive. This year, the roster of sign-ups filled almost immediately, even as the date for the blood-drive got moved at the last minute. Before the day-of, before the posters go up or Student Union representatives pester passing students into signing up, a behind-the-scenes team of faculty and students works to make the day run smoothly. In doing so, our school and all the students who donate blood participate in a complex system that has its fair share of secrets, successes, and controversies.

The most common question donors asked, a sign of BHSEC students’ genuine interest in how they are contributing to the community, is how blood donations work on a large scale. Where is the blood going? Answering this seemingly simple question takes lots of digging into the controversial history of blood donations, one that starts in Moscow in the 1930’s when a doctor saved a man’s life by transferring blood from a cadaver. The market for blood only really took off during World War II, when, in addition to growing victory gardens and raising money for troops, Americans donated over 13 million units of blood to the Red Cross. Blood, once collected, was sold to local hospitals. Although donations of blood and the later sale of that same blood may seem oxymoronic, the cost hospitals paid was to cover administrative charges – for example, to pay for the nurses and advertisers of blood drives, technical costs, like heat for blood banks, and the transport of the blood. At the end of the day, although most blood is slightly marked up to make sure the collecting-organization has some money on hand, collectors, like the Red Cross, are non-profit.

Once a stable system of blood donations was created and a consistent 5% of Americans donated yearly, however, sellers found ways to exploit the life-saving industry. Middle American states, for example, consistently harvest more blood; in fact, in Iowa, four times the national average of people donate blood. Compare that to cities like New York or California, which have very high demand and drastically less donors. As a result, a system of mark-ups, encouraged donations, and huge profits developed. A state like Iowa, for example, would begin asking locals to donate, even if nearby hospitals had more than enough. Their blood would then be funneled into trade routes and sent to some other state for a small profit. The blood would then travel to a slightly more desperate state for little more. Finally, after being tossed through the middle of America, that blood would be sold to a coastal city like Los Angeles for as much as 220 dollars a pint. Alternatively, drug companies can buy that blood for market price, or slightly more money, if the organization declares it a surplus. All in all, the American Red Cross controls 45%, equivalent to an estimated 25 million dollar share, of the blood industry.

Another point of contention related to the blood industry’s policies is a 30 year-old FDA ban on homosexual men and women donating. The policy, which rigidly refers to those who have had same-sex sexual encounters as MSM (men who have sex with men) and WSW (woman who have sex with women), bans any man who has had sex with another man (regardless of sexual orientation) after 1977 from ever donating blood. Women, unexplainably, must wait one year after having sex with other women to donate. This regulation, enacted in response to the AIDs epidemic and meant as a measure to keep blood disease-free, means that thousands of gay and bisexual people who practice safe sex cannot donate while drug addicts, those who have practiced unsafe (heterosexual) sex, prostitutes, and those who have had (heterosexual) sex with an HIV-positive person still can. Isaiah Back-Gaal commented on his experience with this policy: “The information that I had to fill out made me slightly uncomfortable… a large number [of questions were] about sexual activity [and] many of the questions were specifically oriented towards gay males. Seeing that on the current blood drive form shocked me. I continued with the donation, but the homophobic politics behind the current policies certainly gave me a negative impression.” Questions are as inane and specific, he reports, as “are you a woman who has had sex with a man who has had sex with a man?” This policy, which has been ended in Russia, Chile, and the United Kingdom, to name a few countries, is not just blatantly homophobic and hurtful, it is also at the cost of human lives – the lives of those who need blood.

At BHSEC, the common sentiment among blood donors, despite this contentious history, was that of pride and humility. “I wanted to help someone, to help save a life, and [donating] was a good first step,” Anna Goldelman (Y1) explained. “I want to donate as much as I can because saving lives [is] really important to me.” Isaiah Back-Gaal (Y1) adds, “I felt like I had done a positive thing, that my blood would be benefitting someone somewhere.” For these students, donating blood was a really positive experience, hindered only by concerns with iron levels or procedural waits. Although the many benefits of blood drives do not discount the hidden truths about the multimillion-dollar blood industry or its prejudices, donors tend to prioritize those benefits.

Blood donations are a complicated business, and the debates over how and where blood is collected and sold remain unresolved (and very much active) to this day. Part of the issue is that the United States government hardly regulates the industry and that, as a result, exploitation is not unthinkable. Still, according to the Red Cross, every two seconds someone needs a blood transfusion and one donation can save up to three lives. It is important to also remember that much of the blood donation system is not corrupt; the cost of donations is high and distribution can be even more expensive. At the end of the day, it is better to donate blood and save lives than to allow those who need it to die. But it is important to know the history and inner-workings of the blood industry, something that a student who donated blood admitted they “did not look too much into.” All in all, the debate boils down to education, a fact the BHSEC students acknowledge. Isaiah Back-Gaal, who asked the nurse taking his blood about where it would go, said, “despite his explanations, I still wish I had a better, more concrete picture of where exactly my blood is going.” Perhaps once this picture is painted, donors, supporters, and contenders alike can understand the complexity, costs, and benefits of blood donation and think about in a critical and productive way.

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