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For the Sake of Others: Reciprocal Webs of Obligation and the Pursuit of Transplantation as a Caring Act

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Abstract

This article highlights reciprocal webs of care and moral obligations toward kin during transplantation, using an expansive notion of “care” to include both its obvious and more hidden forms. Evidence from 24 months of ethnographic fieldwork among transplant patients, their loved ones, and clinical personnel in the U.S. Midwest suggests that patients are simultaneously caregivers to others and are considered vital members of reciprocal webs of care without whom their kin networks could not effectively operate. Transplantation can become a person's main, perhaps only hope of fulfilling ongoing obligations to others, so pursuing a transplant becomes not a matter of choice, but rather a moral orientation. A potential implication of these findings is that rather quotidian and conventional (even if contested) notions of what kin ought to do and be for each other may be among the underpinnings of high-tech biomedical practices like transplantation.

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