28 February 2009

The Gift of Life

Earlier this week the Archer Report into the infection of haemophiliacs with Hepatitis C and Aids was launched. Although it had all the appearance of a report that would come out of a public enquiry it was in fact a private enquiry. In spite of the deaths of more than 2,000 people the government refused to fund an enquiry, and this one was paid for by donation.

The problem arose because haemophiliacs need regular treatment with blood-clotting factors which they do not make themselves and which have to be extracted from large quantities of blood. During the 1980s this blood was imported, bought on the open market, from the US.

In Britain blood is donated - it is considered too important or too sacred for a market transaction. As argued by Richard Titmuss in The Gift Relationship, the blood donor system is a metaphor for the nature of a healthy and communitarian social contract. This is why we see heavily emotive advertising persuading us to 'do something amazing' by enabling a celebrity to live.

In the US, by contrast a payment is made in exchange for blood. There are no prizes for guessing who gives blood: those who need the money. In the time at which the contaminated blood was imported this often meant drug-users, who unknowingly carried viruses.

This raises important questions about introducing market culture into the area of health - or in fact any vital area of human life. We can only conclude that life is too important to be bought and sold. This applies to blood, to operations, and to care itself. The vital issues of human life are in the world of love, not money.

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