dianoigo blog

Monday 29 April 2019

The Spiritual Side of Donating Blood

I am approaching my 36th birthday, and for the first 35 years of my life I never donated blood. Why not? I cannot name a specific reason. In my years as an eligible adult in Canada, I heard appeals on the radio from time to time from Canadian Blood Services that included the punchy double entendre, "Blood: it's in you to give." I was aware from these appeals that the public health system had a need for blood donors. It probably crossed my mind more than once that I ought to donate blood, but it never reached the point of a deliberate intention, much less an action.

Now, some people have legitimate medical or lifestyle reasons why they are ineligible to donate blood. However, of those who are eligible, only a minority actually donate. For instance, one NGO reports that "Although an estimated 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood at any given time, less than 10 percent do so annually." Meanwhile, a 2015 NHS report in the U.K. indicates that only 3% of England residents in the eligible age range (but including both eligible and ineligible persons) had donated blood in the past year. What is it that prevents most eligible people—like me, from ages 17 to 35—from donating blood? Perhaps it is a fear of needles or the sight of blood; perhaps a general apathy or sense of being  too busy; perhaps a belief that other people are doing it, so I don't need to.

Probably no one actually relishes having a needle stuck in their arm, but some people subject themselves to this relatively mild discomfort willingly. Perhaps, then, the better question is not what prevents people from donating blood but what motivates them to do so? Psychologists offer all sorts of explanations for human altruism, and of course many people donate blood and engage in other altruistic acts toward complete strangers for non-religious, humanitarian reasons. However, other donors may be motivated at least partly by their religious convictions; I am one of the latter.

Although the practice of blood donation and blood transfusions is a marvel of modern medicine (the science being about 350 years old), it has fascinating symbolism in relation to the ancient Christian faith. Think about it: one person willingly gives—sheds, in fact—his or her blood to preserve the health or even save the life of another. This is precisely what Jesus did for all of us on the cross. As he said to his disciples at the Last Supper, "This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many" (Mark 14:24). The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:15-17). In a sense, then, we imitate in a small way Jesus' sacrifice and show solidarity with him when we willingly surrender some of our blood, and thus some of our life (since "the life of the flesh is in the blood," Lev. 17:11) in order to save another from death.

The symbolism can be taken further. The miracle of the Eucharist, in which the blood of Jesus truly becomes present to us and enters our bodies (cf. John 6:53-57), is paralleled in a small way by the medical marvel of the blood transfusion, in which one person's blood enters the body of another to preserve life and restore vitality. In this twofold sense, then, Jesus at the Last Supper and in his Passion is the archetypal blood donor.

Reflecting on such rich spiritual symbolism, the idea of donating blood becomes compelling to me almost to the point of a moral imperative. For, as Jesus said, "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life" (John 12:25). How can I love my life so much that I cannot face a little fear and bear a little discomfort, when by hating it only that much I could save the life of another? Of course, I am not advocating a practice of mandatory blood donation for Christians or anyone else; the practice would then lose all the beauty of a self-sacrificial gift. However, I do think every Christian ought to examine his or her conscience if he or she is medically eligible to donate blood but has never seriously considered doing so.

Faced with the above, it seems incredible that there is at least one professedly Christian religious group, the Jehovah's Witnesses, that not only neglects to advocate for blood donations and blood transfusions but actually forbids its members either to donate blood or to receive a blood transfusion. The FAQ page on JW.org explains the reason:
This is a religious issue rather than a medical one. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly command us to abstain from blood. (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10; Deuteronomy 12:23; Acts 15:28, 29) Also, God views blood as representing life. (Leviticus 17:14) So we avoid taking blood not only in obedience to God but also out of respect for him as the Giver of life.
Now, the above texts, insofar as they are explicit (Acts 15:28-29 is more ambiguous) forbid eating or drinking blood. It is by no means an obvious hermeneutical inference that these texts also forbid donating or transfusing blood—practices that did not exist at the time, at least with any appreciable medical efficacy. There is obviously a stark difference between the practice of eating or drinking blood—which may convey some nutritional value but is quite unnecessary—and that of donating and transfusing blood, which under proper medical supervision can improve and save many lives without inflicting any lasting harm on the donors.

For me, the fundamental moral principle of proportionality ought to govern our judgment on this issue. This principle was famously invoked by Jesus in his disagreement with certain scribes and Pharisees over Sabbath observance. The scribes and Pharisees were enraged with Jesus for curing a man on the Sabbath, when no work should be done. Jesus gave examples of life-preserving actions that might justify violating (by the letter) the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, such as untying an ox or an ass and leading it out for watering (Luke 13:15) or rescuing a son or an ox that had fallen into a cistern (Luke 14:5). His rhetorical question brings home the underlying issue: "I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" (Luke 6:9) So also, with the issue of blood donation and transfusion, the primary question must be, how can we save life rather than destroying it? Blood donation and transfusion saves lives. Forbidding these practices can, in effect, destroy them.

Through the advances of modern medicine, the God-given fluid that brings life to our organs and tissues can also bring life to our fellow humans. It took me 35 years to recognise the precious gift that courses through my veins. I hope no longer to let this gift go to waste.