Blood transfusion practices have evolved empirically, with few or no research data supporting them. In the past several decades, fuelled by fears of infection and reports of mistakes, patients have increasingly demanded their rights to choice, both in the components given to them as well as to refuse to receive these therapies based on religious convictions. In parallel, episodic blood unavailability and growing awareness of the need to apply evidence-based methods have caused physicians to begin re-evaluating traditional practices and to focus on minimizing or eliminating unnecessary transfusions while learning and applying methods that permit reuse of the patient's autologous blood or rely on pharmacologic agents. Ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice provide a rational basis for decision-making when a new blood management programme is instituted. By proactively considering the ethical dilemmas posed by the juxtaposition of patient needs with clinical judgement at the outset, institutions may devise workable programmes that improve patient safety and quality outcomes.