Is there such a thing as a lifesaving blood transfusion? To some that may seem like a silly question, but it’s something many Jehovah’s Witnesses are skeptical about. Section 4 of their new “history” book mentions the concept while talking about parental custody battles involving non-believing parents:
“The non-Witness parent may petition a court for custody of the child or children so that he or she can control their religious upbringing. Some allege that being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is harmful. They may contend that the children will be deprived of birthday celebrations, holiday festivities and, in the event of a medical emergency, a ‘lifesaving’ blood transfusion. Thankfully, most courts consider what is in the best interests of the child instead of judging whether they consider the religion of one parent to be harmful.”
In my time as an online activist I have encountered many Watchtower apologists, and their arguments on this topic are always very similar. First, they say it’s their unalienable right to be able to decide to refuse a medical treatment, even if it means their own demise. Second, they say there are most likely better options. In my experience, it’s almost impossible for them to admit the existence of scenarios where a blood transfusion is the only logical option. This mentality is mirrored by the above quote’s use of quotation marks around the term “lifesaving” which are often used as a form of mockery.
Yet, on April 6th 2015 a seven-months pregnant woman in Sydney Australia, and her baby, died due to the mother’s refusal of a blood transfusion. The account of her case had this to say following the tragedy:
“Refusal of a lifesaving intervention by an informed patient is generally well respected, but the right of a mother to refuse such interventions on behalf of her fetus is more controversial…”
Rather than responsibly addressing the clear ethical dilemma that their religious policy creates, Watchtower would rather question the premise altogether and hide behind religious freedom.
The real question, that demands an answer, is whether or not someone’s religion can actually be considered harmful to themselves or others. The answer to this riddle has far-reaching implications, because if it were true any legal systems established to mitigate harm would need to account for it.
Between a rock and a hard place
Many people would argue that this woman was simply exercising her rights. For instance, Sascha Callaghan, an expert in ethics and law at the University of Sydney, said this about the situation:
“This woman had a long-held commitment to the Jehovah’s Witness faith and that’s how she chose to die.”
What Dr Callaghan isn’t factoring into her assessment is the religious coercion that the woman was subjected to. She fails to mention that Jehovah’s Witnesses can be expelled from their organization and severely ostracized for unrepentantly accepting a lifesaving blood transfusion. That’s the reality that this poor woman was violently thrust into. She could save her own and her child’s life, but she could lose her life in a different way altogether.
Clearly, this kind of pressure constitutes an undue influence on the part of the religious hierarchy that is essentially governing her beliefs. It’s extremely unethical to put anyone through this dilemma, but Watchtower stubbornly clings to their destructive doctrine even as more and more avoidable deaths rack up.
Simply making blood transfusions a matter of conscience altogether would do wonders to improve this dire situation. How can one’s decision to die, or let their children die, be taken seriously when they face total ostracism if they unrepentantly choose life over death?
JW.org explicitly states that anyone they expel from their congregation they consider to be wicked. How can giving no apology for your decision to save you and your child’s life be, in any way, considered an act of wickedness?
Life and love over law
Ethics in the medical community place an extremely high value on life itself. Practices that cost life rather than save it are rightly taken very seriously due to their far-reaching repercussions.
For example, the victim’s obstetricians were said to “rarely see people die, or make a decision that will hasten death.” These practitioners were essentially forced to play a role in an avoidable death – a role that can come with negative psychological consequences.
The community in which the deaths happened was also forced to look on in horror. All of the people who value life over someone’s religious beliefs simply didn’t get a vote. Maybe one day that might change.
It’s difficult to imagine that even with a dead mother and child, a traumatized medical staff and a shocked and grieving community, the Watchtower deity is said to be looking down with happiness and approval. How could such an entity be considered the very personification of love while showing utter disregard for the sanctity of life itself?
A voice for the voiceless
Children of Jehovah’s Witness parents, born and unborn, are powerless to make medical decisions for themselves, so these are often made by their legal guardians. Yet, when the child’s life is on the line, do they have rights that protect themselves?
Dr Kidson-Gerber and her colleague Dr Amber Biscoe wrote the following in an account of the case where the woman died:
“A doctor indeed has moral obligations to both the pregnant woman, and perhaps with differing priority to the unborn fetus. Circumstances where fetal and maternal autonomy conflict, or where fetal beneficence conflicts with maternal autonomy, create challenges.”
Who speaks on behalf of the child when the mother’s medical decisions are blatantly not in the child’s best interests? The answer is: everybody. Simply put, the community that the unborn child is entering into has a vested interest in the introduction of a new citizen.
Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses want to believe that they have a “kingdom” which is no part of this earth. They see ones who are born into their families as citizens apart. The Watchtower’s religious hierarchy wants to be able to micromanage the lives of these citizens even to the point of influencing decisions over the life and death of children, born and unborn.
The fetus who perished didn’t even have a chance to understand its vital role in the dramatic struggle between the religious and governmental powers of the day. Perhaps if enough people speak up for those who are too young to speak for themselves, they will be able to become neighbors rather than uncomfortable memories.
- Daily Mail: Pregnant Jehovah’s Witness and her baby die after she refused a blood transfusion, chemotherapy and a C-section due to her religious beliefs
- Sydney Morning Herald: Pregnant Jehovah’s Witness’ decision to refuse treatment ‘harrowing’ for hospital staff after mother and baby die
- Washington Post: Why doctors let a Jehovah’s Witness and her unborn baby die
- Jehovah’s Witness Report article
- JWsurvey articles on blood transfusions