The media in New Zealand have reported on the case of a 10-month-old baby girl who has been taken under court guardianship after her parents attempted to deny her life-saving treatment with blood products.
Doctors discovered a large tumor on the right side of her chest and, following a biopsy, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and “stage four widespread metastatic disease involving the bone and bone marrow.”
The child had already been given an emergency blood transfusion after arriving for her biopsy at the Starship children’s hospital with a life-threateningly low red blood cell count.
But when her parents were told she needed urgent surgery and treatment with chemotherapy they agreed but could not consent to ongoing treatment with blood or blood products due to their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On August 22 the case was rushed to the High Court where doctors told the Judge, Justice Helen Winkelmann, that the girl would “almost certainly” need a blood transfusion.
A stark choice was presented. If she didn’t receive treatment, the baby would die within weeks or months, but with treatment she had an excellent prognosis, “with a long-term overall survival rate in excess of 90 per cent,” according to Starship pediatric oncologist Dr Stephen Laughton.
In placing the child under High Court guardianship to allow the treatment, Justice Winkelmann said, “While parents have a right, recognised by section 15 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, to manifest their religion, that right does not allow acts or omissions likely to place [the baby’s] life, health or welfare at risk.”
Justice Winkelmann also acknowledged the parents’ dilemma, saying, “Their ongoing support and care for [the baby] is crucial, and the making of these orders, I hope, resolves the difficult position they presently find themselves in.”
According to the estimates of Peter Le Cren, a health lawyer and former medico-legal counsel, cases such as these are adjudicated in court on a yearly basis. “It gives the clinicians and the family involved a lot more comfort having the sanction of the court,” he said. “These families are in a very difficult situation. They feel hugely torn.”
Last year saw a 1 percent reduction in the number of active Witnesses in New Zealand, with 14,000 peak publishers for 2012. According to recent research by Marvin Shilmer, 19 Jehovah’s Witnesses died in four major New Zealand hospitals between 1998 and 2007 by refusing blood despite suffering severe anemia.
A choice no parent should have to make
There is no way of knowing the mental anguish of the parents involved in this case, but I cannot help but sympathize with the position they were forced into.
Parental instincts will always dictate that a child should receive whatever treatment is necessary for its survival, but since 1945 the commands of the Watch Tower Society have completely disregarded the sanctity of human life as respects treatment with blood. Witnesses have been conditioned to think of the refusal of blood as a test of loyalty to God, but in reality it is a test of loyalty to an organization.
Nowhere does the bible comment on whether blood may or may not be transfused, for the obvious reason that blood transfusions were unheard of in ancient times. It is therefore ridiculous to second-guess God’s thoughts on this issue. In its well-distributed study book What Does The Bible Really Teach?, Watchtower offers the following argumentation…
“Does the command to abstain from blood include blood transfusions? Yes. To illustrate: Suppose a doctor were to tell you to abstain from alcoholic beverages. Would that simply mean that you should not drink alcohol but that you could have it injected into your veins? Of course not! Likewise, abstaining from blood means not taking it into our bodies at all. So the command to abstain from blood means that we would not allow anyone to transfuse blood into our veins.” – What Does The Bible Really Teach?, page 130.
This is a false argument for two main reasons.
Firstly, even if a person were an alcoholic this would not stop a doctor administering alcohol-based treatment if his life was in danger.
Secondly, when blood is injected intravenously it enters the blood stream and performs and functions as blood, which is not the case with injecting alcohol. Conversely, when a person drinks alcohol it winds up in the blood system because it cannot be broken down by the stomach, whereas blood when eaten is broken down by the digestive system and thus has no opportunity to enter the blood stream. The analogy therefore does not hold up to scrutiny and draws on ignorance of basic medical knowledge.
When we set this argument aside and look at the bible in context we find good reason for Christians to accept medical treatment with blood, even if they privately choose to abstain from eating it. This has to do with the bible’s emphasis on saving life. For example, on several occasions Jesus invoked the rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh by arguing that the obligation to preserve life supersedes Jewish law. – Matt. 12:11; Mark 3:4-5; Matt. 12:1-4
It is for this reason that Jesus argued that a sheep could be saved if it fell into a pit on the Sabbath, even though work would be involved in rescuing it. And Jesus further argued that mercy is the overriding principle when observing bible commands, saying, “Go, then, and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.'” – Matt. 9:13
By contrast, the Governing Body of the Watch Tower Society ignores the need for mercy and demands human sacrifice in recognition of their authority. This callous disregard for life has resulted in thousands of Witnesses dying over the decades – as many as 50,000 according to one estimate.
In reading this story of the New Zealand baby who very nearly died, I can’t help but wonder whether the parents were actually relieved at having guardianship taken out of their hands. Watchtower demanded they sacrifice their child, and to honor this they needed to at least make a show of objecting by forcing the issue through the court. However, deep down, they must have known that the child receiving blood and staying alive was the best outcome.
It’s just a shame this deadly game of token brinkmanship should be needed at all. And with a case like this arising every year in New Zealand alone, you can be certain there isn’t always a happy ending.
- ONENEWS article: “Baby to be treated after parents lose court battle“
- Marvin Shilmer’s research on blood transfusion casualties
- JWfacts article on Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions