Future Tense

What Would Artificial Blood Mean for Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Donating blood in the Philippines

Photo by JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the New Scientist reported a new benchmark in the race to create an artificial substitute for blood. For the first time, some lab-developed blood was safely transplanted into a volunteer. The amount transferred was tiny—about 10 million red blood cells, or 2 milliliters of blood. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable advance because previous attempts to manufacture blood have bumped up against safety concerns.

“The results show that an unlimited blood reserve is in reach,” one researcher tells the New Scientist. Artificial blood would go a long way toward alleviating the perpetual shortages experienced both here and abroad—particularly in countries where blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS are more prevalent.

As with recent progress in creating synthetic meat, this advance raises an interesting ethical question: Would Jehovah’s Witnesses, who famously refuse to accept transfusions, permit the medical procedures if the blood came not from a man but from an artificial source? Digital Journal reports that a Jehovah’s Witness in India was able to undergo knee replacement surgery—which typically requires blood transfusions—by submitting to a workaround technique called an auto transfusion. A surgeon tells Digital Journal that in this procedure, a “patient’s blood get collected in a filtered reservoir connected to the replaced knee. This blood is then transfused back to the patient within six hours. This obviates the need for any blood transfusion thus minimizing the risks associated with it.”

Typically, though, the religion frowns upon storing one’s blood for a future surgery or emergency. Just recently, an Australian coroner reported that a Jehovah’s Witness who died after a surgical complications could have been saved by a blood transfusion. The coroner said that the death “most graphically illustrates the consequence of the rigid adherence to that doctrine and brings me to recommend, perhaps forlornly, that the Jehovah Witness Governing Body and its elders give consideration to a relaxation of its doctrine.”

Would permitting artificial blood, should it become scalable in the future, be a good compromise? I’m no Jehovah’s Witness, so I can’t speculate too much, but it seems that it could be a workable loophole that would allow them to adhere to their faith while catching up with modern medicine.

Read more on the New Scientist

Correction, Nov. 18, 2011: This sentence originally referred to millimeters instead of milliliters.