Kathleen McLaughlin’s new book, “Blood Money: The Story of Life, Death, and Profit Inside America’s Blood Industry,” begins in China with the kind of intrigue tailor-made for a political thriller. It’s 2004, and we learn that the author, a journalist from Butte, is smuggling medicine made from human blood out of the U.S. into China in vials carefully hidden in her suitcase. She is living and working in China, and needs the banned plasma products to treat her autoimmune disease. McLaughlin’s personal narrative serves as a compelling entry into a deeply reported story about the history and current state of the human blood trade, in which people sell their plasma for cash.
The book, released Feb. 28 by One Signal Publishers, launches in China, where the history of government repression and exploitation based on blood profiteering seems clear-cut. But “Blood Money” quickly makes its way to the doorstep of the U.S., where the ethics of plasma centers fed by cash-strapped Americans seem much more murky.
The plasma industry in the U.S. has learned lessons from the 1980s, when thousands of people were infected with HIV through contaminated blood transfusions. Safety measures and new technologies are now in place. People can make a little extra cash — typically $70 to $80 per donation. And the plasma is used to make much-needed medicine — like the medicine McLaughlin requires. So what’s the harm?
McLaughlin explores that question through interviews conducted in a small college town in Idaho, in Flint, Michigan, and along the U.S.-Mexico border. Woven throughout the book are McLaughlin’s personal anecdotes, interviews with whistleblowers, and histories of blood obsession, from Hungarian Countess Bathory, who was rumored to have bathed in blood, to Silicon Valley tech startups looking to defy the aging process. McLaughlin considers her own identity as a type of vampire requiring blood to live, and grapples with the uncomfortable position of being able to access it on the back of ingrained economic inequities.
She had planned to write a straight science book, but McLaughlin said it became clear early in her research that the plasma industry is a reflection of something much bigger. “Blood Money” paints a picture of an America in which working-class and even middle-class citizens find themselves selling parts of their bodies to keep themselves financially afloat — to pay for rising rents. To buy textbooks. To fund family vacations. And there is often a stigma associated with selling plasma. “Blood Money” is a story about an industry, but it’s also a story about values.
“I thought I was going to get into the science of plasma donation,” McLaughlin told Montana Free Press. “But probably after the first two or three or four interviews I did with people who sell plasma, it became really apparent that science is just kind of a backstory to all of this. I think it’s just a story about our culture and our socioeconomics and the way that we have decided to let people fend for themselves without really giving it that much thought. ”
McLaughlin is known for in-depth reporting on science and socioeconomics that has appeared in major outlets including the Economist, the Washington Post, the Guardian and Buzzfeed. Starting in the early 2000s, she spent 15 years working as a journalist in China, where she wrote on a variety of subjects, including China’s firework factories and the country’s reputation for counterfeit medicine. Her work often spotlights systemic inequalities and official corruption, and is informed by her experience as a child of Butte, with its history of labor strife and corporate malfeasance. McLaughlin grew up there in the 1980s, after the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s reign.
“I remember when I was growing up, people were just pissed at the company for abandoning the town and leaving us with the mess,” she said. “So I think that in my formative years I learned to not trust corporations. That’s probably what I took away from all of it, is that corporations don’t have your best interest at heart.”
Millions of Americans sell their plasma, McLaughlin said, and the U.S. accounts for about 70% of the world’s plasma supply, but most of the corporations that are “mining” products from that plasma are not based in the United States. Many countries don’t allow the sale of plasma, but they do benefit from the products plasma enables. McLaughlin said she learned that the Red Cross allows people to donate plasma no more than 13 times a year. Private plasma centers allow people to sell it twice a week.
“You get the sense the Red Cross is being more protective of people’s health,” she says. “I just think, you know, again, it’s the lessons of Butte, right? The people who are the most vulnerable in our society are the ones also who don’t get enough attention. So this industry, I think, has been allowed to flourish because the people with power aren’t paying attention to it. It doesn’t affect them. It doesn’t influence their lives.”
Since she returned from China in 2020, McLaughlin has reported on the effects of the housing crisis in the U.S. — especially the gentrification of the Mountain West. In “Blood Money,” she finds that towns with the biggest gaps between the haves and have-nots also see the most plasma centers. There are just a few plasma centers in Montana, including a newer one in Bozeman, where housing pricing have radically changed living conditions for local workers. McLaughlin expects more to pop up.
“How did that happen?” she says. “This is not the Montana that I grew up in at all. I do think that we’re going to see more of this.”
McLaughlin isn’t one to wrap her reporting up in tidy bows. She takes no issue with people choosing to sell plasma, she said, and as a recipient of its benefits, she knows there is a need. But she said the system has gone unchecked.
“From my reporting and from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve talked to researching it, we’ve let this system develop and get really big and really interwoven into the fabric of our society, without ever really asking ourselves if we were OK with it,” she said.
Even now, McLaughlin said, she’s still trying to figure it all out.
“After all of this reporting and spending time kind of covertly in a plasma center in Flint, Michigan, and seeing how it operates, I am not convinced the industry itself is the problem. I’m not convinced the industry is bad. I’m not convinced the industry is evil. The industry is the industry. It’s a profit-making endeavor. The problem is much, much deeper than the plasma industry itself. The problem is, we have created this completely unequal society where some people feel compelled to sell their plasma. And to me that’s really the issue.”
“The companies are just the companies,” she added. “Kind of like the company here [in Butte] was just the company. I don’t want to sound blase about it, but they’re all sort of the same, you know? I think growing up here you learn they’ll get away with what you let them get away with.”
Kathleen McLaughlin and Newsy national correspondent Maritsa Georgiou will discuss “Blood Money” on March 14 at the Missoula Public Library at 6 p.m. McLaughlin and author Betsy Gaines Quammen will discuss the book on March 23 at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman at 6 p.m.
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