Friday, July 3, 2009
Image credit: sweetbeetandgreenbean in flickr
We all need it.
Most of us make enough of it and don't lose too much of it.
But some people will need donated blood due to medical conditions, accidents or surgery.
Babies need it.
Most women make enough of it to satisfy their baby's needs.
But some people will need to feed their babies artificial baby milk (also known as infant formula) due to medical conditions, adoption, or unresolved difficulties with breastfeeding.
Why is it that governments and health care providers make donor blood a priority, but don't make donor milk a priority? Why is it that despite the existence of artificial blood products, we have intricate and complex systems set up to collect and screen donor blood from other human beings to provide to those in need. Why is it that despite the opportunity to set up similar systems to collect and screen donor milk we settle for giving our babies artificial milk products?
I don't know.
Some have said that fake blood could be more convenient, more practical than human blood:
Artificial blood may be the most anxiously awaited liquid of all time. Why? You don't have to refrigerate manufactured blood (like human blood) to keep it fresh. Fake blood can be stored at room temperature and dispensed in ambulances, rescue helicopters, even on battlefields.
Sure, there are risks to fake blood and it will never be the same as real blood. But there are also risks to fake baby milk and that doesn't stop us from using it.
So why? Why do we line up to donate blood? Why does the government and the health care system put such great emphasis on the need to collect donor blood? Why do they call people at home and remind them of how much their blood is needed? Why do they take out full page ads in the newspaper reminding people of how much their blood is needed? I mean fake blood could be almost as good. Why not focus on that? Put some more research into it? It could be good for the economy. The companies that produce fake blood products would create jobs.
But breast milk? In Canada, there is one lone milk bank in Vancouver. Women across the rest of the country have a horrible time finding a way to donate if they want to. In the United States there are more milk banks than in Canada, but most of them are small and are very limited in terms of who they can provide milk to and how much they can provide.
When I asked people on twitter if they had ever donated their milk, a lot of people said yes. Some of them had donated to milk banks. Some of them in private donations. Some said they hadn't, but wished they could. But when I asked them if they had ever or would ever sell their breast milk, most of them said no. They said they would just be happy to be able to help another family give their baby the best. That is altruistic and wonderful and in a private mom-to-mom donation (that doesn't have the benefits of screening) you can get that warm and fuzzy feeling from having done a good deed.
But if you are donating to a milk bank, you might...um...be being milked for profits, literally. Prolacta, for example, and the related International Breastmilk Project, take donations of breastmilk from women, a small portion of which is sent to orphans in Africa and the majority of which is sold at the hefty price of $35 per ounce (Read Hoyden About Town's post on the IBMP-Prolacta partnership and check out the various links too). I've heard breast milk called liquid gold before and this just confirms it.
Sure, there is a cost to collect and process the milk. But let's be clear here. The women that donate the milk get no compensation for doing so. Prolacta on the other hand makes a profit selling the breast milk at $35 per ounce.
But why shouldn't we profit from our bodily fluids?
When I was in university I spent some time on an exchange program in Germany. While I had money to cover my basic living costs, it didn't always stretch far enough to pay for my weekly rations of German beer and chocolate. So I did what any other smart and frugal student would do. As often as allowed, I brought some of my reading material with me and plunked my rear end down in the waiting room at the University Health Centre to donate blood or plasma. The wait was often long, but so were the articles I had to read, and I walked out of there with a somewhere between $50 and $80 dollars. Not bad.
Back in Canada, Canadian Blood Services expects me to take time out of my busy day to give a pint of blood in return for a few stale cookies and a glass of juice. I do it. I do it because I know that they need the blood. Canadian Blood Services is a not-for-profit organization that provides blood to Canada's public health system, so I feel okay about giving the blood for free. But would I make a bigger effort to get back for my next donation as quickly as possible if I was being paid for it? Perhaps. But more importantly, for people that have a true financial need, the opportunity to be paid $50 for a pint of their blood could really take some pressure off of the pocket book. Perhaps Canadian Blood Services could also save some money in advertising and recruiting people if they paid people for their blood, because they would come willingly.
What about breast milk? There are a lot of families with babies that are strapped for cash. In Canada, it isn't that bad for most people due to our maternity leave system. But in the United States a lot of women have to go back to work a mere six weeks after giving birth because they need the income. A lot of these women are in minimum wage jobs where it is difficult or impossible to pump at work, so they end up giving formula. This takes mothers often unwillingly away from their babies and forces them to pay for and feed their babies a product that is not as good as what their bodies would produce for free.
What if we paid these mothers for their breast milk? Imagine this. A mother that is earning minimum wage in the United States probably brings home about $250 per week (really rough estimate and average based on different rates for minimum wage and taxes). She is probably spending at least $40 per week on formula and then some money on commuting, work clothes, and so on. Perhaps she is lucky enough to have family members take care of the baby, otherwise the rest of her salary probably goes towards child care expenses. So she is making somewhere between $0 per week up to maybe a maximum of $175 per week to go to work and leave her six week old baby.
Now let's try a different scenario. Let's say she stays home and exclusively breastfeeds. Let's say she manages to pump an additional 5 ounces per day on top of what she is feeding to her baby. Let's say she provides that milk to a company, which pays her $4 per ounce (compared to the $35 per ounce it charges when it sells the milk). That would amount to a revenue for the mother of about $140 per week to stay at home with her baby. Some mothers might be able to make more and some would make less, but it is better than the absolute nothing they are getting now.
All of a sudden it would be financially feasible for more women, especially low income women, to stay home with their babies. All of a sudden, the availability of breast milk would increase for those that need or want it. All of a sudden, we have a system where mothers are being valued instead of being milked for profits. All of a sudden we have a system where nature's best is being valued and fewer women have to settle for artificial milk for their babies.
This is a financial model based on sustainability and opportunity rather than corporate profits. Let's make human milk banks a priority and let's not forget to compensate the supplier in the process.
What do you think? If you could sell your breast milk would you? Are you willing to donate breast milk for nothing and have it sold for $35 per ounce? What seems fair to you?
Note: I am aware that it is currently illegal to sell breastmilk and other bodily fluids in some jurisdictions. I am not advocating that people break the law. I am advocating systematic changes to the legal and health system that would make this possible.