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Blood – sacred fluid or commodity?

The history of blood in medicine and its symbolic meaning is as old as medicine itself.
Human beings, from ancient times, have viewed blood as miraculous, sacred, have been terrified of it, killed because of the “purity” or “impurity” of it and have died rather than betray it.
Blood is the ultimate symbol of life – a sacred fluid associated with birth, nobility, purity, fortitude, fertility and death. The ideas of monarchy and royalty rest upon the (outdated) notion of “blue blood” or pure blood that some members of our society acquire by simply being born from “noble” ancestors.
As a side note, a popular theory is that the phrase “blue blood” describes a condition caused by a rare genetic defect that is carried by the royal families of Europe due to their habit of only marrying from the same breeding pool, thus leading to a blood condition called hemophilia. In reality, the actual origin of the term “blue blood” comes from Spanish and it used to describe that when conquering lands held by Moors, the Spanish nobility displayed the fact that they had very white (never labored) untanned skin, though which blue veins were easily seen, in contrast with the darker skinned Moors.
All major cultures have used and treated blood in ways that reflect its symbolic importance. The Egyptians were mystified of blood and offered wine as “blood of the gods” for rituals; the Nile waters were turned to blood in the Ten Plagues of Egypt; the Egyptians bathed in blood to regain powers lost through illness or injury. The Mayans viewed blood as the supreme nourishment for their deities and the most important rituals culminated with a blood (human) sacrifice, either by decapitation or by heart removal.
Blood also plays a central role in the Christian sacramental traditions, where it is transformed into wine and consumed as the essence of life, the very presence of the “living God”, in the real belief that is the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The science of blood took a major leap forward with the discovery of (by an English physician named William Harvey) the actual circulation of blood in humans, clarifying the role of the heart, lungs, arteries and veins in the circulatory system in a pamphlet called De Moto Cordis. It was 1628. Before this, it was presumed that the liver was the organ responsible for the “spontaneous” creation of blood from ingested food, a theory that lasted more than 1,000 years due to the crushing influence of Galen in this matter and in medicine in general.
The history of the blood as commodity begins with its value in saving lives through transfusion. According to some historians, the first attempt to transfuse blood from one human to another took place more than 500 years ago, when a dying Pope Innocent III received blood from 3 healthy boys with a disastrous results: the boys died, the Pope died and the physician fled the country!
Fast forward 500 years later, the technology has come to age. Countless lives are saved by transfusions all over the world. The science has started to de-mystify the blood and use it as a new commodity, with a market that started to come alive after the WWII. The years of 1950’s to 70’s were a boom in this market with blood being sold in USA at an ever growing pace. Then the ethical and moral issues started to become more prevalent and the desire to protect against the exploitations of those selling blood (usually poor, from low-income class). The open sale of blood created one of most bitter controversies over the ethics of establishing a commercial market for human body materials.
The boom in the increase worldwide sale of blood prompted various international agencies to act, encouraging governments and people alike for non-paid blood donations as a compromise to the problem. Was blood a “gift”, retaining some of its symbolic sacredness, to be donated by and to a community as an act of social benevolence? Or it was a new commodity, a product, like a car, that could be advertised and sold like any other commodity?
The “gift concept” of blood donation and the blood volunteerism belief slowly advanced over the next two decades (70’s to 90’s) and finally triumphed in the USA, when an sustained campaign by the numerous agencies have managed to change the mindset from blood as commodity to blood donation in order to express compassion for their fellow men and women and to show devotion to their community.
This was a long journey for blood. From the magical, sacramental definitions of antiquity to the market definition of today. Blood and blood products (plasma, antibodies, clotting factors) are still being sold and bought around the world as a growing part of the pharmaceutical industry, becoming over the last 15 years a major medical commodity.
The debate over the paid versus non-paid blood donations is still on.

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