My office is holding a blood drive. There are signs in the elevators. “Donate Blood and Save Three Lives.”
Why three? The “three lives” statistic is commonly cited by the American Red Cross. It refers to the fact that a typical blood donation of 450 mL contains 2-3 useable samples of the 4 types of transfusable blood products: red cells, platelets, plasma, and cryoprecipitate. The Red Cross doesn’t guarantee that a donation will contain any usable blood products. It can’t ensure that a donation will be used at all. It only says “each donation can help save up to three lives.” But the signs in the elevators are emphatic. “Donate Blood,” they say, “and Save Three Lives.”
It doesn’t take much to save a life these days. The World Health Organization says you can save lives by washing your hands. They suggest you “create an action plan” based on “the WHO Hand Hygiene Self-Assessment Framework.” I’ve already used the bathroom twice today. I washed my hands both times. Perhaps I saved two lives. You’re welcome, whoever you are.
Yoplait has an advertising campaign called “Save Lids to Save Lives.” Basically they raise money for breast cancer research. Raising money for breast cancer research is a very good thing. Does it save lives? We don’t have a cure for breast cancer yet. But for each Yoplait product that you purchase, a penny (or a fraction of a penny) is helping to keep the lights on at a research facility somewhere. We call this saving lives.
What else saves lives? Guns. A web site called Guns Save Lives collects the stories of people who commit homicide with firearms in self-defense. The logic behind “saving a life” is such that you can even do it by killing someone.
We still have everyday heroes, whether they crow about “saving lives” or not. Boys’ Life, the 101-year-old magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, runs a column called “Scouts in Action.” It’s a comic strip that dramatizes the real-life exploits of Boy Scouts who rescue people in their communities. Sometimes an old lady needs CPR; sometimes a swimmer gets swept downriver. In each case a brave little man steps in to palpate granny’s heart or dive after the drowning boy. There is an immediate need for help, a clear understanding of what must be done, and direct, successful action. There is very little sanctimony. These stories typically end with the boy standing aside to let the ambulance—the adult authority—take over.
The problem with the rhetoric of “saving a life” is that it places trivial things, like washing your hands or buying a Yoplait yogurt, on par with momentous things, like safely landing a plane on the Hudson River and rescuing all 155 people aboard from a fatal crash. Our language is making it easier and easier to credit someone with “saving a life.” The rhetoric has become so wildly inaccurate that we can throw around half-baked numbers—like the “three lives” I will save by donating a pint of blood—without flinching. There will come a day when nobody gets out of bed unless it saves 6 lives. Whose lives? We can no longer say.
And why save them, anyway? Keeping people around is not an inherently virtuous thing. We have a responsibility to be caretakers of our society, our population, and our planet—not to keep everyone who is currently living alive indefinitely. And we certainly don’t become life-saving heroes by buying candles from a web site that pays for heart surgeries for Iraqi kids.
Besides, you can’t save a life. You can only postpone a death.
– Brian Hurley