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.