June 26, 2000 -- Once tossed in the trash, umbilical cord blood is now worth
big money, thanks to medical discoveries and entrepreneurial efforts like
private for-profit blood banks. However, this newly acquired value spawns some
pressing legal and ethical issues.
Perhaps the most important question is that of ownership. Although laws have
yet to establish this, legal experts consider the cord blood to be the property
of the baby. But just as parents must make decisions in the best interests of
their infants and children, so, too, do they become the guardians of this
potentially lifesaving material. Upon deciding to bank cord blood privately,
parents have drawn up legal documents in which they designate that upon
reaching age 18, the child can take over guardianship of the cells.
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Liability issues also arise with respect to the collection process. In
contracts with parents, private blood banks usually try to absolve themselves
from any responsibility if, for instance, the cord blood isn't collected during
their baby's delivery, or if the blood sample isn't viable when needed. Such
contracts often leave binding arbitration as the only recourse for parents.
Kristi Coale is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist who specializes
in science and medical issues.