BY BIANCA JARVIS
I first saw the ad on the bus in the small college town where I live: “Save lives by donating plasma. Earn $150 in three visits!” I was admittedly tempted. As a graduate student, $150 would make a big difference in my budget.
I had some reservations, however. It wasn’t anything to do with needles or blood—it was a question of social respectability. I’d internalized the social stigma that selling plasma was déclassé, an activity reserved for hobos, drug addicts, and the truly desperate. (Nevermind that the homeless and drug abusers are aggressively screened out.)
I let it slip at a party that I was thinking about donating plasma for money, but was that just too sleazy? It turned out that almost every other person in the room was either an active donor or planned to sell plasma in the near future. There was even a referral program with a cash bonus for recruiting new donors.
Knowing that everyone else was doing it somehow made it okay, but I didn’t really consider why it had become a socially acceptable activity in my peer group. We were all highly educated, hypothetically middle class people in our twenties and early thirties—the perennially “lazy and entitled” members of Generation Y—but we were all so broke that selling bodily fluids for profit seemed like a reasonable way to make money.
The plasma center in my town is clearly geared towards college students. The phlebotomists are cute tattooed hipsters, they offer free Wi-Fi, and top 40 songs like Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” play in the background while you donate. They hosted a weenie roast on Memorial Day. The place has a weirdly futuristic vibe with its rows of immaculate plasmapheresis machines, the technicians clad in white lab coats and flip-up plastic face guards. “It’s like the set of a Japanese porn film,” a friend observed with glee.
I made complete three donations, earning $150 in debit cards along the way.
But I’m not sure I’ll be going back to participate in the plasma industry. In his essay in The Atlantic, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington explains that he was a lot like me when started “plassing”: an underemployed freelancer hoping to make a little extra cash. In the process of donating, he uncovered a multitude of ethical quandaries related to the plasma business in the United States.
There are health issues they don’t tell you about, such as the anti-clotting agent they inject into your veins that can cause dizziness and fainting. In the E.U., donors are only permitted to donate twice a month. In the U.S. it’s twice a week, and collection centers offer considerable financial incentives to those who donate frequently.
Those who donate twice weekly out of financial need may be most at risk for complications, due to poor nutrition and lack of medical care. Of course, there are also the historical issues related to plasma products and HIV transmission. Wellington reminds us, “Roughly 50 percent of American hemophiliacs contracted HIV from bad plasma-based pharmaceuticals (a much higher infection rate than that suffered by gay men at the time), making worldwide plasma medication HIV outbreaks the industry’s most publicized scandal.”
Would history repeat itself if an unknown blood-borne disease emerged in the donor pool?
Ethical dilemmas aside, what really struck me is that in my town, selling plasma has become normative to the point of being trendy or aspirational. It’s not just students, either. What does that say about our local economy, and the failure of U.S. capitalism on a larger scale?
The harsh realities of the plasma economy hit me when I took my blood money to Sam’s Club to buy groceries after donating. There is something slightly uncomfortable about using a plasma card to make purchases, since it forcibly outs you as a donor.
Stranger yet was the cashier’s reaction to the card: she expressed not judgment, but jealousy. “They turned me away because they said I look like a pill addict! Do I look like a pill addict to you?” I shook my head in sympathy. Another cashier then bragged that she always donates twice a week. These were not starving students. These were middle aged moms working full time a Wal-Mart subsidiary, a company that prides itself on paying poverty wages.
Selling one’s body for profit is a popular theme in science-fiction films like Antiviral and Repo: the Genetic Opera. However, this is real life and The Matrix is becoming our reality, as we voluntarily hook ourselves up to machines that suck our literal human lifeblood. What more proof do we need that the American Dream is dead, when people who work full time jobs still must sell their vital fluids to make ends meet?
Bianca Jarvis, MPH, is blogger and sex educator at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, based in Bloomington, IN. She is also executive editor of Msbehaved.com, “a sex-positive lifestyle site with a fierce femme sensibility.” Read more at Kinsey Confidential and on Twitter at @BiancaJarvisMPH.