05.07.14 — Every year, countless Americans supply blood, sperm and breast milk to “banks” that store these products for later use by strangers in routine medical procedures. These exchanges entail complicated questions. Which body products are donated and which sold? Who gives and who receives? And, in the end, who profits? In the just-released Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk and Sperm in Modern America, Professor Kara Swanson traces the history of body banks from the 19th-century experiments that discovered therapeutic uses for body products to 21st century websites that facilitate a thriving global exchange. 

More than a metaphor, the “bank” has shaped ongoing controversies over body products as either marketable commodities or gifts donat- ed to help others. A physician, Dr. Bernard Fantus, proposed a “bank” in 1937 to make blood available to all patients. Yet the bank metaphor labeled blood as something to be commercially bought and sold, not communally shared. As blood banks became a fixture of medicine after World War II, American doctors made them a frontline in their war against socialized medicine. The profit-making connotations of the “bank” reinforced a market-based understanding of supply and distribution, with unexpected consequences for all body products, from human eggs to kidneys.

Ultimately, the bank metaphor straitjacketed legal codes and rein- forced inequalities in medical care. By exploring its past, Banking on the Body charts the path to a more efficient and less exploitative distribution of the human body’s life-giving potential. 

“Banking on the Body uncovers the remarkable story of how body products have been envisioned as civic resources controlled by medical professionals as well as personal property which might be bought and sold by individuals. Original and deeply researched, this book has real significance for how we balance ever-increasing demands for body parts while still preserving our own human values.”

—Steven Wilf, author of Law’s Imagined Republic:
Popular Politics and Criminal Justice in Revolutionary America