A Court Allows Payment for Bone Marrow. Should People Be Able to Sell Their Parts?

Posted: July 2, 2012 at 11:25 pm

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A color-enhanced photograph of spongy (Cancellous) bone red bone marrow fills the space.

How much would it take for you to consider selling your bone marrow? A U.S. appeals court puts the price at about $3,000 in a ruling that now makes it legal to pay donors for their bone marrow tissue.

The courts decision may well help thousands of sick patients who need bone marrow transplants to survive, but it also begs the question, what other body parts might next be up for sale?

The ruling came about at the end of 2011, in a decision to an October 2009 lawsuit brought by a group of cancer patients, parents and bone marrow donation advocates against the government over the federal law banning the buying and selling of bodily organs. The plaintiffs were led by Doreen Flynn, who has three daughters who suffer from Fanconi anemia, a blood disorder that requires bone marrow transplants to treat. Flynn and the other plaintiffs said that too many such patients die waiting for transplants and argued that we should be allowed to pay people to donate their marrow as a way of ensuring a more reliable supply. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed.

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At the core of the plaintiffs argument was the National Organ Transplantation Act (NOTA), which since 1984 has forbid the buying and selling of human organs, including bone marrow. But new developments in bone marrow extraction have made marrow donation not much different from donating blood: traditionally, bone marrow donation required anesthesia and long needles to extract the marrow from the hipbones of donors. Now, a technique called peripheral apheresis allows doctors to extract blood stem cells directly from the blood, instead of the bone patients first take a drug that pulls stem cells from the bone and into the blood meaning that the marrow cells should be considered a fluid like blood, rather than an organ, the plaintiffs argued. NOTA doesnt prohibit payments for blood or other fluids, such as plasma or semen.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided not to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appellate courts decision, which would have been the next step in overturning it. That means the ruling stands and that people can now be paid up to $3,000 for their marrow, as long as it is collected by apheresis. In a concession to the spirit of NOTA, however, the compensation cant be in cash; it needs to be in the form of a voucher that can be applied to things such as scholarships, education, housing or a donation to a charity.

While the decision applies only to the nine states covered by the Ninth Circuit court, and only to bone marrow obtained through apheresis, it does raise bigger questions about how we will look at organ donation in the future. With about 114,000 people waiting for organs in the U.S. alone on any given day, and only 3,300 donors, the urgent medical need runs up against moral standards of the value human life. Once we start paying for the parts we need, though, how far do we go? We dont allow people to buy and sell human beings, thats slavery, says Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the bioethics program at Columbia University. Should we allow people to buy and sell human body parts?

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A Court Allows Payment for Bone Marrow. Should People Be Able to Sell Their Parts?

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