Rethinking Healthcare

Which body parts should you be allowed to sell?

Posting in Technology

A U.S. appeals court has legalized the sale of bone marrow, for as much as $3000. What tissue will enter the market next?

Sperm. Plasma. Eggs. Hair. What do all these things have in common? They're parts of your body you can legally sell in the United States. This last fall bone marrow joined that list says Alice Park of TIME.com.

Since 1984 the National Organ Transplantation Act (NOTA) has outlawed the sale of body organs, including bone marrow. But new bone marrow technology called aphoresis allows doctors to harvest marrow cells from the blood instead of the hip bones, as it was previously collected.

Plaintiffs last fall argued that this technique takes bone marrow out of the category of organs, and reclassifies it as a liquid. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in their favor, permitting the sale of bone marrow for up to $3000 USD in the form of a voucher.

Bone marrow is an important exception the pre-existing list of body parts legal to sell, Park points out:

For now, legally “sellable” human body parts aren’t ones that could be used to cure fatal diseases, which prevents a market frenzy. But if the bone-marrow case starts changing that — and experts say it could — it might jumpstart a dangerous trend in which lower-income groups were disproportionately targeted or incentivized to give up their marrow and people with rarer blood types demanded more money for their valuable cells.

But, Jeffrey Kahn, professor of bioethics and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University Berman Institute of Bioethics tells Park that he sees the bone marrow ruling as a policy experiment. If it promotes more people to donate much-needed bone marrow, "maybe we should think about this for other kinds of donations."

For example, a number of U.S. patients already travel out of the country to obtain kidney transplants from donors matched online, Kahn says. At the moment this practice is highly unregulated and usually involves people from developing nations. Allowing such transactions within the U.S. could decrease their sketch factor.

Or, we could look to the donation models of other countries, Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the bioethics program at Columbia University, tells Park. In Spain people all people are organ donors by default, they don't have to opt in like they do in the U.S. Israel entices people to elect postmortem donorship by promising living family members priority on organ waitlists should they ever need one.

[via TIME.com]

[Photo: Timothy Vollmer/Flickr]

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure