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Out for Blood
Tim Francis-Wright

The American Red Cross is feverishly trying to restore its reputation with the American public, after it reversed its benighted plans to divert much of its Liberty Fund away from the victims of the attacks on 11 September. Its financial donors can now rest assured that the money that they gave will go to its intended use. But the volunteers who listened to Red Cross pleas to donate blood in the aftermath of the attacks have no such assurance: the Red Cross will need to incinerate much of the blood that it collected. Its urgent pleas to donate blood were naïve at best and fraudulent at worst. The Red Cross risked its reputation among blood donors for a dubious goal that was completely independent of the attacks in New York and Washington.

Immediately after the 11 September attacks, the American Red Cross made urgent appeals for donations of money and blood. Americans responded in droves. The American Red Cross Liberty Fund collected over $500 million in money, and tripled its normal blood collection from the time of the attacks through the end of October. Normally, such an outpouring of donations would be good for the charity involved. But the Red Cross misread the intentions of the public. It intended to use much of the money donated to the Liberty Fund for tangential activities, such as $50 million to establish a bank of 100,000 pints of frozen type-O red blood cells.

Many donors complained, and the New York State Attorney General hinted of dire ramifications for the Red Cross if it diverted funds away from the victims of the attacks. Red Cross President Bernadine Healy announced her resignation, effective at the end of the year, and the Red Cross announced last week that all of the Liberty Fund would go to help the victims in New York, Washington, and on the hijacked planes. In the end, the Red Cross acted wisely with respect to the money in the Liberty Fund. It now plans to give away much of the money in the years to come, because the financial impact for many victims will last for years, well after death benefits or unemployment checks run out.

A common charitable purpose for many organizations that provide disaster services is relief of the poor. Providing money to the wealthy, even to wealthy heroes, is not a charitable purpose under the law. So the American Red Cross and the United Way in New York City have had to work hard to ensure that affluent families do not get money that they do not need. If funds were scarce, then it would be doubly important to find the neediest victims and meet their needs first. But funds are not particularly scarce, given the amazing generosity of Americans for a slew of worthy charitable funds in New York. Both the American Red Cross and the United Way have decided to ensure that the families of victims will avoid poverty for years to come, and have avoided the false imperative to spend all of their donations right away.

The attempted diversion of the money in the Liberty Fund caused a well-publicized wound to the reputation of the American Red Cross. That wound will heal over time. None of the money was wasted. Much of the money that the fund already spent paid for meals and emergency support to rescue workers and the families of the victims. The American Red Cross has announced that it will work with the New York State Attorney General to coordinate aid with government agencies and other charities. The damage to the American Red Cross blood program, however, will not heal with time.

In the days and weeks after the attacks, Bernadine Healy appeared time and time again on public service announcements on television, asking for donations of money and "precious blood," even weeks after it was apparent that the atrocities in New York and Washington would require very little donated blood. According to the New York Times, blood donations at the Red Cross nationwide were triple the normal volume from 11 September through 30 October. At the New York Blood Centers, which are not affiliated with the Red Cross, donations were almost triple the normal volume from 11 September through 14 September, when its spokespersons asked New Yorkers not to donate for a while.

The American Red Cross used the 11 September attacks to try to establish a reserve of 100,000 units of frozen blood. Before then, the organization had tentatively planned to establish such a reserve. However, it did not consummate those plans until after the attacks. It asked the FDA for approval of the plans on 14 September, and it did not receive approval until 1 October. Even accounting for the delay, according to the Washington Post, the freezing operation has gone very slowly: by mid-October, only 8,000 units were frozen. Almost immediately after the attacks, it was clear that the attacks would present little demand to the blood supply. Most survivors did not need blood transfusions. Yet the Red Cross still called for blood donations for the victims on its web site and in its advertisements. Its leaders surely knew that the victims would never get a drop of the blood shed by its volunteer donors.

If blood had an unlimited shelf life, then the call for blood donations would have been disingenuous but ultimately harmless. But many blood components become unusable, notably red blood cells, which have shelf lives of 42 days under refrigeration. Blood banks can freeze red blood cells for longer periods, but the process is expensive due to labor costs and the additional expense of freezing over mere refrigeration. The Red Cross typically freezes only rare blood types like AB-negative blood. A recent article in the Washington Post reports that 250,000 to 400,000 pints of blood will be extraneous out of the 1.2 million collected from 11 September through October. (It is not clear from that article whether just the red blood cells are at risk or whether the plasma is also at risk.) Those blood donations are gone forever. They are not monetary donations that can be reimbursed from an organization's endowment or from a rich benefactor.

From time to time, the Red Cross has urged eligible Americans to donate blood, especially around holidays when regular blood donors may not think to donate. Often, the current blood supply covers 1 to 3 days of demand, not the current 10 days. Yet the appeals for blood in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks were much louder and much more insistent than the calls during most holidays. Now it will be easy for potential donors to be cynical about donating. Donors already overcome obstacles in order to donate blood. The Red Cross does not reimburse its blood donors. Donating is tough for anyone afraid of needles. Donors also put up with a list of truly personal questions—"Have you taken street drugs by needle, even once?"—"Have you spent 3 months or more in the United Kingdom since 1980?"—"Have you had sex, even once, with an IV drug user in the last 12 months?"—"Have you been detained in a correctional institution in the last 12 months?" It is hard to fathom why the Red Cross would give potential donors another reason not to donate.

I am a regular blood donor, very near my ten-gallon pin. I have donated at school, at Red Cross donor centers, and even at a Teamsters local. I last donated blood on 30 August, through a procedure that took the equivalent of two pints of red blood cells from my system. Because supplies in Boston were fairly low then, it is quite likely that the Red Cross used all of my donation before it stirred up a tidal wave of donors. But there is a chance that I took vitamins to get my hematocrit levels up, went a set of obnoxious questions for nearly the eightieth time, and spent nearly an hour hooked up to a machine only to have my cells incinerated. I will probably donate when I am next eligible in late December, and donate 7 pints of blood in one year for the first time ever. However, I will do so with more skepticism than ever about whether the Red Cross is either capable or trustworthy.

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