We all know that blood saves lives, and most of us are familiar with the importance of donating blood when and if we can. As medical science has progressed, however, the ways in which blood can be donated, and even the types of blood it is possible to share, have increased, bringing with them a number of issues that society must debate.
All cultures have their own traditions surrounding the process of giving birth, and some of these involve the placenta and umbilical cord, used to allow the transfer of substances between mother and child before birth takes place. While some cultures espouse the ingestion of a mother’s placenta, western medicine has found another use for this organ, or at least for what is contained within.
The placenta and umbilical cord contain a type of blood that is rich with stem cells, which can be used to great benefit in patients suffering from a variety of immune disorders. The most widely known use of such cells is in bone marrow transplants, where patients suffering from cancer receive the bone marrow from a living donor, replacing the unhealthy blood cells of the patient for the life-saving ones of the voluntary donor. The process of bone marrow transplantation can, however, be time consuming, and finding an exact donor match can be difficult.
Cord blood contains a similar type of the stem cells that are found in bone marrow, but the way in which it is donated makes it more readily available for the patient in need. Cord blood, once tested for its suitability, can be stored in a special facility until it is needed – when it can be sent directly to the patient without enduring the time consuming search for a bone marrow donor.
Cord blood donation raises a number of issues. Public cord blood storage units are not always available to the parents who wish to donate their baby’s blood. While parents can choose to store the cord blood privately for their baby’s later use, this can be expensive, and raises the question of whether the blood should wait for someone who might never use it or be given immediately to a patient in need.
For the moment, this remains the choice of the parents, who can choose to save their baby’s cord blood, if they can afford to pay the price. Like all insurance policies, it might be one taken out with the hope that it never needs to be called in, but society continues to ask whether this is a policy whose benefits should be shared