The hybrid bioeconomy of umbilical cord blood banking


In recent years, terms such as bioeconomy and biocapitalism have been introduced to explain the growing commercialization of biomedicine and the industry of health, fitness and wellbeing. The old biopolitical rationality of the nation-state addressing the health of the population, would have been substituted by a free market of biomedical products and services where individuals manage their own health and wellbeing by negotiating with commercial enterprises. In parallel, the old welfare state and its public healthcare system continue to exist in evolving, and sometimes contrasting, relationships with this novel biomedical industry.

The case of umbilical cord blood banking is paradigmatic. As a rich source of stem cells used in the treatment of hematological malignancies, cord blood is collected at birth and stored in biobanks. Mothers or parents can donate it to public biobanks which distribute this tissue for healthcare needs, or they can pay a private biobank to preserve it for a future personal or family use. The public/private contraposition is at the core of a huge debate in bioethics and biomedicine. In bioethics and biomedical literature, the field of cord blood banking is described through a “narrative of opposition” in which public banking is depicted as a redistributive economy based on solidarity and promoting social cohesion, while private banking is characterized as a profit-oriented market economy based on individual self-interest. Is this a valid account of cord blood economies?

Christine Hauskeller and Lorenzo Beltrame (University of Exeter) have challenged this narrative. By analysing practices, technologies and biomedical and organizational platforms of cord blood banking, they show how the distinction between institutional sectors (public/private) and economic regimes (redistribution/market economy) is not so sharp as in the narrative of opposition. On the contrary, banking, circulation and the clinical use of cord blood increasingly take place in hybrid zones where redistributive and market economy co-exist, overlap and hybridize each other. The study of cord blood economies – and thus of bioeconomy at large – should abandon this narrative and its rigid economic categories. In order to better understand the cultural, societal and economic implications of modern biomedicine, the analysis should focus on the concrete configurations of heterogeneous elements constituting the platforms that enable its functioning.

The article, published on BioSocieties, could be downloaded here.