Marrow match money

Bone of Contention

Katherine Mangu-Ward

When tech entrepreneur Amit Gupta was diagnosed with acute leukemia, a couple of his (wealthy) friends sprang into action, offering $10,000 each for a donation of the genetically compatible bone marrow needed to treat Gupta’s condition. Their generosity exposed them to the risk of fines and up to five years in prison.

These days, donating bone marrow isn’t so bad. In most cases, you no longer have to go under anesthesia. Nor does anyone stick a giant needle in your hipbone. Instead, a cheek swab determines whether you are a match, then you are given drugs so that your body overproduces the useful stem cells needed to treat leukemia and other conditions, which are shed into the bloodstream and easily extracted from blood drawn through a relatively nonscary needle in the arm, just like a normal blood donation. 

The offer made by Gupta’s friends was nevertheless illegal. The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 makes it a felony to give or accept “valuable consideration” for any transplantable organ or tissue.

Bloomberg View columnist (and former reason editor) Virginia Postrel reported in October that Gupta’s money men revised their offer, proffering cash for the first match, whether or not it is followed by a donation. That keeps them within the letter of the law.

But the law may be on the way out, thanks to a suit filed before Gupta’s diagnosis. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, argues that there is no “rational basis” for treating marrow transplants differently from blood transfusions, a distinction that violates equal protection.  =