US hospitals are currently desperate for blood donors: more than 4000 blood drives were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a March 2020 letter co-signed by the AABB, America’s Blood Centers, and the American Red Cross. The situation, which resulted in the loss of 130,000 anticipated donations, is unprecedented, according to Claudia Cohn, AABB’s chief medical officer and director of the blood bank at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Meanwhile, international corporations that operate donation centers in the United States are buying the blood of poor people from Mexico and the United States and selling the plasma overseas.
Mexican citizens cross the border into the United States to donate their blood plasma at various donation sites established by Big Pharma, according to an October 2019 report from ProPublica. The donation centers are mainly owned by Grifols, a Spanish company that operates seventeen donation centers along the US–Mexico border; CSL, an Australian company; BPL, “an emerging player” headquartered in the United Kingdom; and GCAM Inc., a US firm with four centers along the borderlands, ProPublica reported.
“Donate” is the term these companies prefer to use, but Mexicans are selling their plasma for cash rewards, including bonuses for referring new donors. The companies attract Mexican citizens to the United States because plasma donation is illegal in Mexico, and firms know that prospective donors are likely in desperate need of extra income. “The donors, including some who say the payments are their only income, may take home up to $400 a month,” ProPublica reported, an amount that exceeds monthly salaries in border-based assembly plants and many middle-class jobs in Mexico.
Donating blood plasma repeatedly can be detrimental to donors’ health. Excessive donation can weaken the immune system, making donors more susceptible to diseases and infections. The United States provides few legal protections for donors. According to ProPublica, “Unlike other nations that limit or forbid paid plasma donations at a high frequency out of concern for donor health and quality control, the U.S. allows companies to pay donors and has comparatively loose standards for monitoring their health.” The United States is the largest supplier of blood plasma in a $21 billion global market, according to ProPublica’s report.
A 2018 study of US plasma donation centers, conducted by researchers at Case Western Reserve University and MetroHealth Medical Center, found that 57 percent of plasma donors in the study made more than a third of their monthly income (up to $250–300) by donating plasma, and 70 percent of these donors experienced side effects from donation, including weakness, bruising, dehydration, and fainting.
Alan MacLeod of MintPress News identified paid blood donations as indicative of capitalism’s latest stage: “In a very real sense,” he wrote, “corporations are harvesting the blood of the poor, literally sucking the life out of them.” With sales of $28.6 billion in 2017, exports from the United States accounted for 70 percent of the plasma available on the international market, MacLeod reported. From 2016 to 2017, blood exports increased by more than 13 percent. While human blood is not yet sold on the futures markets, plasma increasingly is becoming a global commodity, with some of those selling their blood reporting that its value fluctuates—on some days they earn $75 for a donation, while on other days they make just $20.
A 2006 book, Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell’s Tissue Economies, anticipated this phenomenon, but it has continued to develop outside the scope of establishment news coverage, with a few exceptions. The El Paso Times, a subsidiary of USA Today, republished a version of Villagran and Dodt’s “Blood for Money” report for Searchlight New Mexico. In February 2019 the New York Times reported on the “booming” plasma donation business in the United States, noting that, in 2016, blood products accounted for 1.9 percent of all American exports. The Times’s report drew on the Case Western Reserve/MetroHealth Medical Center study and addressed the exploitative nature of for-profit plasma donations in the United States, where the plasma for which donors are paid $30 will be worth $300 on the global market. In addition to the sources cited here, independent coverage of the topic has included reports by The Atlantic, Axios, and Latino USA, a radio program distributed by NPR.
Stefanie Dodt, Jan Lukas Strozyk, and Dara Lind, “Pharmaceutical Companies are Luring Mexicans across the U.S. Border to Donate Blood Plasma,” ProPublica (in conjunction with ARD German TV), October 4, 2019, https://www.propublica.org/article/pharmaceutical-companies-are-luring-mexicans-across-the-u.s.-border-to-donate-blood-plasma.
Lauren Villagran and Stefanie Dodt, “Blood for Money,” Searchlight New Mexico (in conjunction with ARD German TV), October 22, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20200222024850/https://www.searchlightnm.org/blood-for-money.
Alan MacLeod, “Harvesting the Blood of America’s Poor: The Latest Stage of Capitalism,” MintPress News, December 3, 2019, https://www.mintpressnews.com/harvesting-blood-americas-poor-late-stage-capitalism/263175/.
Abby Zimet, “In Late-Stage Zombie Capitalism, the Poor are Selling Their Blood,” Common Dreams, December 9, 2019, https://www.commondreams.org/further/2019/12/09/late-stage-zombie-capitalism-poor-are-selling-their-blood.
Student Researchers: Tuuli Rantasalo (University of Regina), Meagan Cummins (University of Vermont), and Allegra Wu (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluators: Suliman Adam (University of Regina) and Rob Williams (University of Vermont)