A scanner authenticates my handprint as I’m ushered briskly into Booth C. A spring-loaded lancet jabs my fingertip and my arm is passed under an ultraviolet beam, revealing a watermark known only to staff members. I lie down on a contoured vinyl bed as a tourniquet is tightened against my bicep, wincing as the needle enters my arm. Blood fills the adjoining tube like mercury in a thermometer, terminating at a softly-whirring machine with a passing resemblance to a reel-to-reel deck. I’m told that under no circumstances am I to fall asleep.
Allow me to pause.
This isn’t the memoir of a CIA officer, nor is it an expose on a narcotics ring. This is a grubby clinic on the south side of Ypsilanti, and this is my first day as a for-profit medical donor.
For the last month, I’ve traveled across southeast Michigan engaging in every legal donation service, study and trial available to me in an effort to shed light on an increasingly popular practice among college students faced with meteoric increases in tuition and living expenses. Nothing is off limits: Blood, sperm and even the electrical activity of your prefrontal cortex can been commoditized.
The hunt begins every morning on Craigslist, home to dozens of cash offerings for body fluids, cooperation in pharmaceutical trials and in one standout case, the eggs of “extraordinary young Jewish women.” From here I place a handful of cold calls, pack my schedule to the limits of medical ethics and begin the lengthy process of peddling my flesh.
The scene above takes place on Friday, my designated day for plasma donation, though calling it a donation is playing fast and loose with the definition of philanthropy. This is the sale of vital fluids for cash — plain and simple. While the company clearly makes a pitch in their pamphlets for “heroes,” the process is unceremonious and — like many programs angled toward low-income clients — professionally condescending. Knowing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve any “paid-donor” specimens for life-saving operations, the experience left me feeling slightly cheapened, and though the $50 provided by the receptionist did help put my mind at ease, I still didn’t feel like a hero.
By comparison, my Wednesdays spent selling sperm were positively dignified. I once attended a charity auction at the Meadow Brook Hall, a mansion built by the widow of automotive maven John Francis Dodge. This fertility clinic, nestled in an affluent Detroit suburb, featured neither the Dodge mansion’s valet, nor its platters of marvelous port-glazed duck canapés. With that in mind though, it’s still worth retelling as it was the second time in my life I have ever experienced such overwhelming deference and discretion in the same day.
Fortunately, the confidentiality agreement signed in the clinic’s wainscot-paneled drawing room not only prevents me from disclosing anything more than the tasteful Ansel Adams prints on the wall and the complimentary beverages provided by the secretary, but also relieves me from the tired, euphemistic winking and nudging required to describe the experience in print. It’s exactly what you think it is. The compensation is highly competitive. The genetic criteria are highly restrictive, and the list of forbidden activities in your “off-hours” is equally so. Far from a frat-boy’s dream, it was the most professional medical appointment of my life.
If you’ve read this far with arched brow and mouth agape, then you’re neither alone nor entirely unjustified. For the same reason that we recoil at museum exhibits describing the Middle Passage or at insurance tables describing the price of reattaching a dismembered finger, we humans intrinsically reject placing a price on a pound of flesh. My experiences have violated every cultural and religious norm on the books, and even the most “progressive” individuals manage at least one furtive grimace per minute when we talk about this. However, despite the unflattering responses, what I do, and what students all across the country are doing, is fully voluntary and non-coercive.
So if you’re in good health, have a light wallet and can manage to suppress your basic urges (for volunteerism), then you too may sleep soundly with a petty collegiate fortune, knowing that elements of your body are stowed in anonymously-labeled refrigerators across the country. I may not continue donating, but for the record, I did pay this month’s rent with the dividends.
William Toms is a senior at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.