No, I’d rather not save your life

There was a rather long thread on one of my forums, since locked, and I wanted to see what you guys had to say about it.

Here’s the post in a nutshell: a woman is asked to be screened to donate bone marrow to a relative, but in the past this relative has bullied her and been mean to her. The woman decides that she does not want to donate to someone who’s been that wicked to her, as she doesn’t feel it’s right that they’re treating her like a spare parts factory. In other words, she’s only worth anything to them inasmuch as she’s useful.

My first thought was, it depends on how “mean” the relative was. There’s a difference between “You always laughed at my clothes” and “You bilked Grandma out of her estate so she died penniless.”

My next thought was, Don’t we have a responsibility to save a life if possible?

And then I thought, Donating bone marrow is an “extraordinary measure,” and we’re not required to take extraordinary measures to prolong a life (ie, we’re not required to intubate a patient or perform invasive surgery, but the Catholic Church does require hydration because drinking is an “ordinary measure.”) So maybe there’s not actually a moral imperative to save a life if it requires extraordinary action.

And then I thought, But what life-saving effort wouldn’t require extraordinary action?

I could go round and round for hours, but I’m wondering what you guys think. If it affects your opinion, bone-marrow donation is no longer invasive and painful; it requires taking drugs to stimulate cell production, and the process of removing those cells is via filtration, like a long blood transfusion done two or three times over several days. You might be achey as if with the flu, but not usually worse. No drills involved.

And how low down the scale do you go? What if you only had to pay a hundred dollars to save your enemy’s life? How much benefit does the person have to reap: six more months? Five years? And how irritating is a person allowed to be before you decide the pain of saving the person’s life is only going to prolong the pain of having to deal with that person?¬†

Where in all this do we become little gods, dealing out life and death based on the worthiness of the recipient? And really, do some lives not require saving? Or conversely, should we make an extra effort to save a soul who truly isn’t ready to face God?

Answer in the comments box or on your own blog. I’d like a wide range of moral/religious/social views because this whole thing seems rather tricky.


  1. Deb

    I knew that thread would be locked the moment I saw it. I didn’t post in it because of that, but I’m glad to express my opinion here!

    I honestly can’t imagine a situation in which I would be unwilling to donate blood or bone marrow to save someone else’s life, except the most extreme. If someone raped me, killed my husband, molested my child, then I wouldn’t, but I don’t feel good about that. I should be able to forgive, and withholding my blood or marrow as a punishment doesn’t gel with my beliefs on forgiveness. I’m happy to say it’s not a situation I anticipate being in.

    Organ donation is different, because of the risks to the donor. I don’t have much extended family; if something happens to my husband and me our kids would be on their own. I don’t think I would put my kids at risk by endangering my life at this point.

    If my kids were in high school or older, and the person needing the kidney were very close to me, I’d risk it.

    If, though, it was my husband or kids who needed the kidney, I’d do it in a second, regardless.

    I do think we have the right to judge our actions based on our relationships, good and bad, and do what’s best for all concerned. What a thorny problem, though!

  2. philangelus

    It’s definitely thorny. There are so many factors:
    1) physical risk to the donor
    2) potential benefit to the recipient
    3) emotional cost to the donor
    4) emotional expectations of the recipient

    And so on. I’m not comfortable with a blanket statement that we MUST save someone’s life because it ignores the prior relationship between the two. But I would also be uncomfortable with saying anyone’s life is disposable.

  3. blueraindrop

    i’d say first do the screening… it may eliminate the issue entirely in a lot of cases. so assuming its a match…

    i wouldnt consider them obligated… relative any more than stranger.

    however, i dont think its going to help her healing any to not do so. obviously still open wounds… i would think added bitterness isn’t going to help any… and even make the resentment worse if she feels guilt for the death later.

    kindness usually kills bullies more than retaliation anyway.

    it may be useful to let the recipient sweat it out a bit though if they are acting entitled… lol

  4. philangelus

    Donating to a stranger is one thing. Helping someone who abused you is another thing entirely. To recast the question, do they feel entitled to using your body to prolong their own lives?

  5. whiskers

    I am on the registry, and there are very few people to whom I would not consider donating…one of them tried to kill me, so I think I’m in an ethically sound area saying I would not do anything to prolong his life.

    That said, perhaps our fellow poster could say that if she donated, the mean relative could never contact her again? Sort of a “if I do you this favor, you have to do me the favor of leaving me alone” type of thing…

    I think it would be different if she was already on the donor registry. You don’t get to register and then choose if you want to do it based on who it is. However, since she is not, she can refuse for any reason at all. It is, after all, her body.

  6. cricketB

    Then we have all the relatives sticking their noses in. You may hate your cousin, but what about how your mother feels about her brother watching his sick son, and you for not saving him? You can get around this by purposefully failing the early screening, but is that ethically better or worse than openly refusing to be screened in the first place? One of those questions we hope never to have to answer for ourselves, and pray for those who do.

  7. Philangelus

    That’s another issue, Cricket. Because there’s going to be fallout from saying no, even if everyone else in the family knows what’s been going on (and that’s assuming the bully/mean person was doing something admittedly reprehensible, like cleaning out Grandma’s bank account.)

  8. Ivy

    It’s a hard balance, because there are so many factors.

    Let’s start with, “would the world be a better place without this person”? If I was shown a guy who blew up office building, raped small children, and beat his wife and kids, and told I could save him for a penny, I wouldn’t pay. We’d be better off without him. Then we have a continuum. Maybe the only thing he did was hit his wife once in a while. Maybe he just degraded her and insulted her. Where is the line? One time someone said that no animal’s life is worth more than a human’s. I still hold, if I had a choice between saving a stray cat and saving Bin Laden, at the end of the day I’d be introducing a new cat into the household.

    Second, “is this person taking the steps required for the treatment to be effective”? One of my coworkers was told he could stop smoking or stop breathing. He hasn’t stopped, and I wouldn’t go through much to undo the damage he’s doing himself. OTOH, if he quit, thereby doing the right thing to take care of himself, I would help him.

    On the smoking score, if a person is perfectly content to endanger the other people around him, considering the lives of others to be of less value than personal convenience, than I would say my personal convenience is worth more than that person’s life. Apply to drunk drivers. Apply to anyone who regularly, carelessly, risks the health or well being of those around him or her. I have another coworker who has volunteered for EMS, helps people get into shape, helps people find the right foods to combat whatever ails them. She has given much of herself to save lives, and I would be honored to help her if she was in need.

    If the choice were mine, I’d raise a glass to that manifestation of the the L-rd’s justice. The one person who can save him, is the one person his own actions have turned away from that path. Then after the creep died, make a marrow donation to the marrow bank.

  9. Scott

    Family Politics is so difficult to understand sometimes, especially when you’re trying to understand a family that was brought up differently than your own. To do something like this is such a personal decision and you can’t think of the variables that went through that person’s head. All you can hope is that:

    — the person actually thought it through and just didn’t use it as an excuse to get out of helping (i.e. if it were someone else, the person still wouldn’t have done it and used a different excuse.)

    — the decision wasn’t for proud or selfish reasons (Even though that person will not be helped, the decision was made to benefit others)

  10. AnotherFaceintheCrowd

    I feel she has no obligation to help this relative out — and not necessarily because he was mean to her in the past. Any reason is good enough reason to help or not to help.

    Certainly, it would be a good thing to do, whether or not he was a good person — being worthy is a terrible criterion: everyone fails it in *someone’s* eyes, somewhere. It would be good for her to get enough closure on past crimes and forge a better relationship with him. But she’s probably right that once the relative is out of danger, he and his close relatives will go back to being the people who don’t care whether she lives or dies. People don’t change like that.

    We could argue that she ought to be bigger than that, but it’s really up to her and what she can square away with herself, not what we’d do.

    And I’m very glad there’s no law to force her to.

  11. Wendy

    You’ve raised many points, but much of it boils down to one person making a judgement on another person’s life. The Bible says, “Love your enemies.” If you are going to live by God’s rules, then you have no place judging whether or not the other person is worth saving.

  12. philangelus

    Whiskers, I did make that suggestion before the thread was locked, that she would get tested and/or donate ONLY if they promised never to contact her again. And since bullies are highly aware of power imbalances, the bully might well stay away from her because at that point, she’d literally owe the woman her life.

    Wendy, there’s also that line “Do good to those who persecute you.” But even so, it wouldn’t be judging that this person is worthy of living or dying, but rather, “I don’t want to be the one to do it.” It’s not killing your enemy (which would be wrong under the circumstances) but not doing something to prolong his/her life. The way you put it, though, it seems that there would be an obligation for Christians, at least, to go through with it.

  13. cricketB

    No, the power balance would not move to the donor. The bully would receive something the donor values. Even if it was just the time for the tests and the blood (and in this case there’s also taking medication), it’s still something she values. Everyone who pushed to “save the bully” is on the bully’s side. After it’s all done, she would have no power. “I saved your life, be grateful,” vs, “I’m still here, sucker.”

    It may help her to move on, and give her the courage to say, “Stay out of my life,” or help her to sidestep the power struggle. Some who are in favour of the donation might be doing it to help her forgive, submit to God, perform an act of charity, move on. The act may help her do those things, but it’s because she changes, not because the bully gives up the power.