Cord blood has powerful symbolic connotations. To offer just one striking example, some Indonesian natives preserve it because they consider it the home of the soul, and the place where the soul finds refuge after death.
In addition to this symbolic meaning of cord blood in itself, the topic inextricably involves the symbolic meaning of gift giving. In 1924, Marcel Mauss, a sociologist who provided one of the most significant contributions to the analysis of the meaning of the notion of a “gift”, published the book Essai sur le Don: Forme et Raison de l’Échange dans les Sociétés Archaiques, in which he analysed in depth the concepts of donating, receiving and returning1. His follower Alain Caillé, in Critique de la Raison Utilitariste2 and in L’Esprit du Don3 stated that these free gestures are decisive for the development of societies. Another sociologist, Marcel Hénaff, described three kinds of gifts: ceremonial (which oblige us to give in turn), free (which derive from spontaneous generosity) and of mutual aid (which denotes a social dimension of communities)4. In his book Donner le Temps: la Fausse Monnaie5, the philosopher Jacques Derrida presented four points regarding gifts: in order for there to be a gift, reciprocity is necessary; in order for there to be a gift, the recipient cannot give it back, partially accept it, or reimburse the donor; the disappearance of the gift recipient implies the disappearance of the giver; and the gift cannot remain such if its status as freely “given” either vanishes or never appears. A final remark about the significance of the “gift” can be taken from Jean-Luc Marion, who described a gift as omnipotent and disinterested, insofar as it is impossible to prevent: although circumstances may prevent a person from giving, the intention of giving cannot be eliminated6.
Gift giving is one of the gestures which most distinctly identifies—and ennobles—human beings. An example is meaningful. In some tribes of Papua New Guinea, there was a widespread belief that certain people, once deceased, could be transformed into pallid ghosts and cannibals. Consequently, white-skinned people naturally instilled fear in these tribes because they appeared to be such ghosts. Andrew Strathern, an anthropologist who studied these populations, had a telling experience: in order to determine whether he was a ghost or a man, the natives offered him pig meat. Familiar with the local beliefs and customs, the anthropologist offered them shells in return. Thanks to this exchange of gifts, the natives recognised him as a man and not a ghost.
While taking into account these profound sociological and philosophical thoughts, it is crucial to note that the meanings of giving are not merely symbolic. They also have important practical consequences: the debate regarding donation versus self-preservation of cord blood is also a problem of social relations. The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy, a provocative book published in 1970 by British social scientist Richard M. Titmuss, is a well-known source for this topic7. The all encompassing question of the book is: to what extent can we rely on altruism to provide for the needy? The author argues for the superiority of the voluntary system on two grounds.
First, the voluntary system encourages—while the market system discourages—a sense of social solidarity, altruism, responsibility towards others, and responsiveness to the needs of the others, in and between members of the society who are personally unknown to one another. Second, the voluntary system provides more blood of higher quality: when blood becomes a commodity, the author argues, its quality is corrupted.