This year, more than 130,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a serious blood disorder. Many of them will need a bone marrow transplant to survive.
But for 70 percent of these patients, that means relying on a stranger to donate their marrow. At least 1,000 people die each year because they can’t find that donor.
So, should bone marrow be for sale?
Doreen Flynn thinks so. When she found out her daughter Jordan needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant, she would have paid any amount for a donor.
"Why not do it? She could have passed away," said Flynn.
Jordan has a rare genetic blood disorder. No one in her family was a match, so Doreen had to rely on a national registry.
"You’re basically putting your faith in the system, and hopefully, there’s a donor out there that’s willing to come forward and donate," Flynn said.
After two months of waiting, Jordan did find a match. She had her transplant and is now recovering, but her younger twin sisters have the same disorder and will also need transplants. A match for them might not happen as fast -- or even at all.
"You’re helpless as a parent. That’s the worst feeling you can have for a child," Flynn said.
Jeff Rowes, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice believes more would be willing to donate if they were paid. He teamed up with the Flynns and others to challenge the national organ transplant act -- a nearly 30-year-old law that prohibited compensating bone marrow donors, punishable by up to five years in prison. Rowes argued bone marrow, unlike organs renews itself.
"We allow people to sell sperm and ova and other kinds of renewable parts of their body. The reason why compensation will work for marrow is the reason why compensation works for everything. If you want more of something, you provide money for it," Rowes said.
Just this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the ninth circuit agreed with Rowes. Now, for the first time, bone marrow donors can be compensated in nine states. Rowes says it’s very unlikely the feds could successfully prosecute patients or paid donors in other states.
"For our clients, the victory is exhilarating," Rowes said.
But the National Marrow Donor Program, which runs the world’s largest registry, disagrees. In a statement, they said "Paying marrow donors creates a multitude of problems and will not help more patients receive transplants." They claim since other countries don’t allow compensation, the U.S. would limit its participation in international exchanges – resulting in fewer donors.
"Just because you can sell something, just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you ought to," said Kenneth Goodman, Ph.D. and Director of Bioethics at the University of Miami.
Goodman says, at this time, there is not a good compensation plan in place.
"There’s great reluctance to commodify the human body. If bone marrow is for sale, does that mean that only people that can afford to buy it are going to get it?"
Goodman believes paying for bone marrow could also attract the wrong kind of donors who give for the wrong reasons.
"That strikes me as not the kind of society I would want to live in, where life and death decisions are made by desperate people at the end of their tether who are down on their luck who need a few bucks for selling their body parts," said Goodman.
But Doreen expects it will give patients, maybe even her own kids, a better chance at finding a match.
"I just want them to have the chance to have a normal, healthy life."
Jordan’s grateful for her mom’s efforts.
"I’m proud of her. I think she did a good thing," she said.
The ruling by the 9th Circuit applies only to bone marrow donors who donate through the most common method -- having blood cells drawn from the arm. It is still illegal to compensate for bone marrow taken from the hip just like it’s illegal to pay for organs.
MoreMarrowDonors.org is conducting a test to determine whether financial incentives will increase marrow donors. It will provide donors with a $3,000 stipend, which is funded by charitable supporters and not paid for by the patients.