Contemporary American Reform Responsa

80. Selling Human Blood for Medical Purposes

QUESTION: May a donor sell blood for medical purposes, i.e., plasma, transfusion or medication? (Rabbi M. Staitman, Pittsburgh, PA)

ANSWER: There is a clear line of reasoning in the Jewish tradition which demands that a person remove all possible danger to himself (Deut. 4.9; 4.15; Ber. 32b; B. K. 91b; Yad Hil. Rotzeah Ushemirat Hanefesh 11.4; Hil. Shevuot 5.57; Hil. Hovel Umaziq 5.1). This has led modern rabbinic tradition to limit operations to those matters in which there is a high likelihood of success (see "Dangers of Surgery" in this volume). In the matter of blood donation there is virtually no danger to the donor, although there may be some danger to the recipient, as he may unwittingly receive a disease.

We must, therefore, ask whether the ownership of one's body is such that we can dispose of it as we wish. The traditional view holds that no harm can be permitted to the human body (Shneir Zalman of Ladi, Shulhan Arukh Shemirat Haguf #14; Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. X, #7). Waldenberg goes further and claims that man is only the temporary possessor of his body. It is provided by God on loan, and so, must be carefully guarded.

In the case of blood donations, however, no real change in the body's material occurs, as the blood will be replaced fairly quickly. Nothing irreplaceable has been removed. We must, therefore, turn from the questions of physical harm and ownership to the commercial aspect of the transaction. Clearly there would be no problem with simply donating blood. We might go even a step further and state that it is our duty to help a fellow human being through donating blood. This should be encouraged. Tradition has stated that we should not stand idly by while our neighbor is harmed (Lev. 19.16; San. 73a; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 426). Helping a person is, therefore, a duty whether it involves physical effort or a gift. In the later rabbinic discussion of this mitzvah, the only question raised is that of piquah nefesh, in other words, how far should an individual endanger his own life in such an effort. As we have pointed out, there is little danger to the donor.

The nearest similarity to the sale of blood is the sale of milk by a wet nurse. There a nursing mother is willing to sell some of the fluid produced by her body, in this case milk during her period of lactation. Her milk will save the life of a child and nourish it. The use of wet nurses has continued throughout the ages from Biblical times onward (Gen. 35.8). Sometimes this was done as an act of friendship, but frequently such an individual was hired for this specific task. Such wet nurses were often engaged for a period of two or three years (Ket. 60b; 65b). There is some discussion about the acceptability of a non-Jewish wet nurse; the Tosefta permitted this practice. The only stipulation added was that she should live in the household of the baby (Tosefta Nidah 2.5; A. Z. 26a). A woman might even milk her body's milk into a bowl and feed a baby in this fashion, though this was frowned upon (Tosefta Sab. 9.22). Clearly, the rabbinic tradition had no hesitation about such a transfer of life giving fluid from one person to another as a commercial transaction.

We have no hesitation about the commercial sale of blood at plasma centers on these grounds. We have concerns on other grounds, however. The individual involved in these transactions are generally the poor and homeless who have absolutely no other resources except their blood. Their plight should move us to help them rather than encourage commerce in blood.

There is a constant medical need for human blood. Its donation will help to save lives. We encourage and urge individuals to participate in this effort and are willing to accept the sale of blood as it, too, saves lives.

November 1985

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.