By Pablo Moleman

Yesterday, I received a parcel containing two cotton swabs. The accompanying letter kindly asked me to rotate them against the inside of my cheek for (at least) thirty seconds each, exerting pressure similar to brushing one´s teeth and then letting them dry for five minutes. I obliged, and after that returned the swabs in the enclosed prestamped envelope. Now, my chances of being able to save a human life have been raised by about five or six percent point – to be more precise, by about 0.1 pp for every lifeyear still ahead of me. When the DNA sample I sent to Stichting Matchis is matched with that of a person in need of stem cell transplantation, I will have the incredible opportunity to give them the gift of life.

Registering as a stem cell donor was quite an easy thing to do, and it made me realize that it – along with other possible actions such as donating blood or organs – is something worthy of consideration for effective altruists. These kinds of actions have the potential to save human lives for relatively little effort and are a nice change from more familiar ways of helping others, such as donating money or time.

That´s why I wrote this short blog post about blood, stem cell and organ donation (both live and post-mortem). I am not, nor proclaim to be, more knowledgeable than others on these matters. I simply want to share with you the fruits of about two hours worth of googling.


1. Blood donation
Donating blood can be done once every few months and takes about an hour of your time each instance. How often you are allowed to donate depends amongst others on body weight and gender (males can donate more frequently than females). The technique is not very invasive – similar to blood being taken for measuring your blood profile. One donation helps about 5 people in need, and about 35 donations are required to save 1 life. In short, it´s quite an easy and sure way of doing good!

Each donation is preceded by filling in a form on personal health and behavior that may increase the risk of diseases. A recent flue may require you to skip a donation and a visit to a tropical country to pause donations for half a year. Intravenous drug use and, controversially, male homosexual contact are reasons for permanent exclusion from donating blood.

In the Netherlands, demand of blood is about equal to supply at the moment, but it´s always good to have a bit more to retain a stable supply or in case demand increases. There are shortages of certain blood groups (O-) and there is a shortage of plasma donors, so it´s especially effective if you are able and/or willing to do such donations.

You can sign up to become a blood donor here.

2. Stem cell donation
Donating stem cells is quite a sure way to save a life, if a match is found. You have to register by sending in a cheek swab (you can take it yourself and it is painless) that will be analysed, of which the results put into a database. There is a screening involved similar to that with blood donations but rules are less strict (gays are not categorically excluded).

If your data matches that of a cancer patient in need of a donation, you will be contacted and asked to donate. This happens to about 1 in 1000 registered donors each year, so don´t expect to be ´lucky´ very soon. If it happens, what is required is that you stay for about 24hrs in the hospital for the cells to be taken operatively from your body.  

There is currently a shortage of registered stem cell donors, so signing up increases the odds that suitable donors can be found for a patient, and the amount of matches that can be made.

More on the procedure signing up can be found here.


3. Organ donation after death
Organ donation after death is (presumably) non-painful. I personally think there are not many rational arguments against registering as an organ donor but still most people refrain from it. If you have not registered as an organ donor, please consider doing so. One donor can save up to 8 lives!

Chances that a registered donor actually becomes a donor after death are quite slim, due to the special circumstances under which death has to occur for the organs to be retrieved. But registering is not much of an effort and there is currently a very troubling shortage of donor organs.

You can register here

4. Organ donation during life
Organ donation during life (for instance, a kidney transplant) can be done for a close friend or family member, but only if there happens to be a match. For people that are not in this position, but wanting to be effective altruists, it would of course be more straightforward to actively search for a matching stranger to donate to. Most of us have a kidney to spare and chances are there is someone out there in much larger need of it than ourselves. This, in fact sometimes happens: according to De Correspondent, about fourty to fifty people in the Netherlands every year perform these so-called ‘Samaritan donations’, and the number is increasing.

If you are interested in becoming a Samaritan donor, you can go to your doctor and apply. You will start a (long) procedure where both your health and strength of your motivation are checked. You will be informed of the medical procedure and a number of risks and possible health effects involved, that you will have to consider. These are not large, but still exist and will have to be weighed against a high probability of saving another person´s life.

If you are eager to learn more, here you find a more detailed case for live kidney donation (thanks to Imma for pointing it out to me).

There is also a brief discussion of this topic in Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save. Lastly, De Correspondent ran a beautiful series of articles on it, that explains the motives of donors as well as the procedure involved:

– [1]…/Hier-mijn…/16374302175-3047d0c8

– [2]…/Hier-mijn-…/9193545075-77728c5c

– [3]…/Hier-mijn…/35414188425-1e6de09a


For people interested in helping others, and specifically in saving lives, donating blood and registering as a stemcell or after-death organ donor seem to be worthwhile additions to donating to effective charities. The potential gains are not as high as in some financial donations (it takes 35 blood donations to save one life) but personal costs involved are relatively low. Because of the low time expenditure they can easily be an addition to donating time and money, not a subsitution.

Also, the possibilities presented by these methods are much less constrained by personal (financial) circumstances than time and money donations, making them viable options for nearly everyone. The notable exception is the exclusion of active male homosexuals from blood donations in the Netherlands. This exclusion is the subject of societal debate and several countries have already relaxed standards, so for homosexually active altruists it could be of interest to watch how the situation evolves.

Samaritan organ donations during life require a much larger time expenditure and are physically much more invasive. There is a good case to be made in favour of them nonetheless that requires attention.

The topic of bodily donations could benefit from more publicity both inside and outside the EA movement.