Chapter 16
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Transfusion Terror

Holly Tucker talks with The Atlantic about blood, stem cells, and fear

March 29, 2011 According to an interview in The Atlantic, Holly Tucker got the idea for her new book of nonfiction, Blood Work, when she heard then-President George W. Bush defend his position on stem-cell research by citing a fear of any scientific studies that might result in “human-animal hybrids”:

After that speech, I was struck, dumbfounded actually, how the arguments and reactions on the Internet and in the media mirrored those that I was seeing in the early blood transfusion trials, where the donors were animals.

Traditionally, historians have said that transfusion was banned after the events chronicled in Blood Work because it was too dangerous. But I wasn’t convinced. After all, surgeons were performing skull drilling, caesarian sections, and removing bladder stones through the penis—all without anesthesia and antisepsis. I knew there had to be another reason.

It turns out there was. After several years of archival work, I discovered that transfusion was stopped because of intense fear that physicians now held the secret for creating new species. Some men, like the illustrious chemist Robert Boyle, felt pretty certain that this was not possible. But still, he stressed that science could not prove the point without experiment. And then there were still others for whom interspecies transfusion was not a mere scientific curiosity. Science was toying with God’s intentions and needed to be stopped immediately.

In recent years, scientists have explored possibilities of using animals to incubate human organs or blood, and bioethicists have discussed whether interspecies neurological trials should be permitted. What would be the eventual moral status of an animal with human brain cells in society? Huge and even strange questions, but they have to be asked before launching into any experiment of this nature.

Stem cell research (especially human embryological stem cell research) may seem to be different because it involves the question of when human life itself begins, rather than the issue of engineering new creatures. But I would say that there are also important overlaps with early debates on blood transfusion.

In the end, it is all about how we understand what it means to be human and when ‘humanness’ begins and ends. Every society in every time period has to come to terms with how those definitions change in the wake of new scientific discoveries.

For the full, fascinating interview, click here. To read Chapter 16‘s review of Blood Work, click here. To read our interview with Holly Tucker, click here.

For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16‘s News & Notes page, here.