Selling Yourself Short

Q. I’m really in need of money. I’m tempted to sell my blood plasma to a private company. Is this ethical?

A. First let’s familiarize readers with this process. In many places it is possible for healthy individuals to augment their income by going twice a week to a center where blood is removed from their body, the plasma is extracted, and the rest of the blood is restored. Since plasma is rapidly replaced, this can be done several times a month.

Your question of whether this sale is ethical is very much in place. It is a basic tenet of Judaism that we are not the owners of our bodies. Rather, God is the owner, and He gives us responsibility to care for His deposit during our lifetimes. The renowned Enlightenment authority Rav David ben Zimra writes, “A person’s life is not his property, but rather that of the Holy One, blessed be He.” Consequently, Jewish law explicitly forbids us to harm ourselves. We find an example of this in the Biblical prohibition against mutilating the body in any way, including making a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28). This means that we have to carefully consider the extent of our mandate over our bodies.

At the same time, our tradition recognizes that making a living is a basic necessity, and that sometimes this can be dangerous. Indeed, the reason the Torah gives for having to pay the worker on time is that he “bears his soul” for this pay; in other words, he occasionally has to risk his well-being. (Deuteronomy 24:15.)

However, the promise of payment cannot by itself justify selling part of your blood. A person is not allowed to engage in prohibited behavior even in return for money, and this includes the prohibition of causing needless harm. We have to ask if the plasma donation is in and of itself a proper act.

To the best of my knowledge, blood plasma is used exclusively for vital and even life-saving research and therapy. If so, this is an appropriate use of our Divine deposit. While a person is certainly not obligated to participate in such a program, the fact that it serves an important benefit makes these donations, like donations of blood, permissible. The fact that a private company carries out this process, and that you are paid for your time and trouble, do not in any way diminish the fact that your plasma is being extracted for a beneficial purpose.

Getting paid for something is not automatically demeaning, and there is nothing inherently wrong with accepting money for your significant sacrifice in time, effort, and strength. However, we have to always keep in mind that ultimately it is not the money that makes this donation proper but rather the benefit to mankind. For example, if the company were to use the plasma for cosmetics then the above analysis would not apply.

Since maintaining health is a vital obligation, you must make sure that the highest levels of safety and hygiene are maintained. And in order to make it completely clear that the ethical justification is really the important benefit fulfilled by donating, make sure that it is well publicized that the plasma is being used for vital medical research and therapeutic use.

In summary, the process you describe is not really “selling” your plasma, which would present ethical obstacles. Rather, you are donating your plasma for a worthy cause. While your main motive may be financial, the benefit you provide others is still considered an important part of your participation, and you should be careful to keep this in mind.

Our bodies do not belong to ourselves; rather, they belong to our Creator. Nonetheless, He has given us a broad mandate to use our judgment to employ His deposit in the most productive way for our own benefit and the benefit of mankind.

SOURCES: Radbaz commentary on Rambam Sahnhedrin 18:6; Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Chovel uMazik 5:1; Rabbi Avraham Sherman, “Trumat Eivarim leMatarat Revach Kaspi”, Techumin 20.