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Allow payments for bone marrow in order to save lives

Shannon Tavarez, 11, was a star in the Broadway production of "The Lion King," but her promising future was struck down when she died of leukemia late last year for want of a bone marrow transplant.

In the United States, more than 130,000 people are diagnosed with blood diseases like leukemia each year. Of the roughly 44,000 diagnosed with leukemia every year, 3,500 are children like Shannon.

The best, least-invasive leukemia cure is a bone marrow transplant. While it's a relatively simple procedure, only 2 percent of the population is on the national registry. If hospitals were allowed to offer payment for donations, that number would surely rise.

Unfortunately, it's illegal to pay people for bone marrow donations. The almost 30-year-old National Organ Transplantation Act (NOTA) prohibits people from receiving compensation for donating a life-saving bodily substance like bone marrow.

With new technology, the process has become simpler and is about as risk-free as a medical procedure can get: According to the Institute for Justice, 35,000 people have donated bone marrow without a single donor death.

Just like blood or plasma, the body readily replenishes bone marrow once removed. It's not as simple as stopping by a lunchtime blood drive, but it's one of the easiest ways to save a life.

But some are still opposed to treating bone marrow donations like blood donations. One argument is that donating any bodily fluid is morally suspect, because "the gift of life" is too precious to buy and sell. Another argument is that monetizing bone marrow donations will leave the poor vulnerable to exploitation.

As a society, we've accepted and found benefit from paying for donations of blood; it's hard to see why bone marrow is different.

To the exploitation argument, minority groups -- which disproportionately comprise the poor who might be exploited -- are already extremely underrepresented in the national bone marrow database. The statistics are harrowing: Whereas white patients find a donor 75 percent of the time, black patients find unrelated donors only 25 percent of the time, Hispanic patients find donors only 45 percent of the time and Asian patients find donors only 40 percent of the time.

Shannon Tavarez -- with a Hispanic father and an African-American mother -- never stood a chance.

There are some medical issues that raise tricky dilemmas: giving cancer patients placebos instead of potentially life-saving drugs during clinical trials, say. This is not one of those. Thousands of Americans need access to bone marrow, and hundreds of millions of Americans aren't on the national registry's rolls. Helping those thousands connect with the millions isn't immoral: It's humane.

James Stacey Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey.

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