Editorial: Pay for plasma has moral risks

Health Minister Terry Lake has opened the door for a private company to collect blood plasma in B.C. The firm, Canadian Plasma Resources, has only one outlet so far, in Saskatchewan. After being shown the door in Ontario, it is looking for other locations to expand.

Plasma is a straw-coloured liquid in which blood cells are suspended. The company collects it by attaching donors to a centrifuge that draws blood, extracts the plasma and returns the red and white blood cells intact. Its components are used to treat a number of health ailments, including hemophilia and immune disorders.

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In a newspaper article defending his decision, Lake spoke of the jobs that could be created — not a trivial matter.

Yet the firm’s business model represents some challenges to Canada’s blood-collection system. First, the company offers payment, in the form of a $25 gift card for each donation. That is contrary to the policy of Canadian Blood Services, our national blood-collection agency.

Second, almost all plasma procured in Canada is sent abroad to be fractionated — that is, separated into its component parts. While the company has a licence from Health Canada to collect plasma, it does not have the licences required to bring the components back and sell them.

That process can be lengthy, and Health Canada’s approval cannot be taken for granted. That raises the question whether, if permission is denied or a buyer cannot be found here, those plasma products might instead be sold abroad. A spokesman for the company says it is their intent to bring fractionated components back to Canada.

There are arguments on both sides of this issue. On the one hand, it has long been the practice in Canada not to pay donors for blood or plasma (a small clinic in Manitoba does offer remuneration, but it is the exception).

That policy is based on public-interest considerations. Donating is a form of community service we have every interest in encouraging. Many civic services rely to a considerable extent on volunteers. Might we undermine this principle if we start paying for donations?

And how would Canadians react if the plasma they provide is eventually sold abroad? There’s nothing illegal about that, but it might not sit well.

On the other hand, CBS collects, at best, 25 per cent of the plasma required each year in Canada. Most of the rest comes from donors in the U.S., and some of those are paid. If we’re willing to buy plasma from paid American donors, why would we object to a Canadian firm paying donors here?

Again, while there is the possibility that plasma collected by the firm might be sold abroad, should we care? There is an international marketplace for these products, in which many countries participate. So long as we can buy what we need, does it matter how it gets here?

On a fair balance of the issues, there is no absolute right or wrong here. But there are moral implications to be weighed.

While we might be forced to import plasma products from the U.S., that doesn’t mean we have to import American values. Those are two quite different propositions.

Paying for plasma commercializes the transaction. That’s why we forbid payment to donors of other human material, such as organs or sperm.

And how could we justify selling plasma abroad, when we are already far from self-sufficient as it is? The desire to help neighbours holds a place in our hearts, as the residents of Fort McMurray can testify. But that desire could be dampened if donors believe they have been exploited for profit.

Lake should tread carefully here. There is more at stake than jobs.

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