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Jehovah's Witnesses and Blood Transfusions

Here's a med student who posted something critical of religion in general and Jehovah's Witnesses in particular. He has no ax to grind (I don't think). He just reflects upon experiences he's had and reports he's heard. Why not answer his post? I did. Here's the post (with limited peripheral material edited out) entitled:

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusion

One of the most important aspects of science is it’s progressive nature. Our knowledge of any subject is always changing. Nowhere is this more evident than in science-based medicine. Physician guidelines change on an annual basis depending on studies and evidence supporting new treatments, therapies and procedures.

I can not imagine anything more contrasting to this than religion. Religion is structured in such a way as to prevent its beliefs from changing. Only when the most superior leaders of a religion decide that it should be changed does the doctrine itself change......

Last week, I was doing rounds in the neonatal intensive care unit (ICU) when I was introduced to a lovely little patient attached to IV lines and a nasal cannula for oxygen supplementation. This unstable newborn baby was suffering from hemolytic disease of the newborn, which occurs when maternal antibodies still present in the baby attack its red blood cells (RBCs), causing their contents to spill out into the blood stream. If it wasn’t for the concomitant jaundice that developed, this baby’s fatally low hemoglobin levels would have caused him to be almost as pale as the page these words lie on.

When a pediatrician is confronted with this scenario, the treatment is rather common sense: stabilize the patient, attempt to clear the serum of toxic levels of bilirubin (to prevent irreversible brain damage), and transfuse the patient with compatible blood. Otherwise, the baby’s blood cells will continue to be attacked until there are none left and the central organs cease to receive oxygen.
But alas, the baby’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions are strictly against their beliefs because a nearly 2000 year-old scripture warns against eating blood. Not that eating blood and a transfusion are the same thing but according to the religions main legal entity, The Watchtower Society, it is. “The Society,” as it is often referred to colloquially by Witnesses, directs, administers and develops the doctrines for the religion and followers.

The Watchtower Society doesn’t draw the line at whole blood transfusions but rather at any components of blood. This includes platelets, RBCs, white blood cells (WBCs) and blood plasma and further discourages the use of fractions from any of these blood components, including albumin, globulins, clotting factors, erythropoietin (EPO), and hemoglobin. These restrictions have lead doctors to develop bloodless surgery techniques. Such surgery is not yet common, and very few have the luxury of utilizing it.

In the meantime, Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to die during the desperate times requiring blood transfusions, which are more common than one might think. This is exemplified by the Jehovah’s Witness magazine Awake, which explained in its May, 1994 issue that:  “In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.”

If practicing Jehova’s Witnesses do receive transfusions, they are ousted from the religion in what’s known as disfellowshipping. These individuals are cut off from their families and friends who are also Jehovah’s Witnesses because the religion attempts to limit social interaction with non-Witnesses.

With increasing pressure in our technologically-advanced era, the Watchtower Society has very gradually loosened its grips on its opposition to blood transfusions and blood products. In the last few years the religion has allowed their followers to use specific blood products in special cases. For example, hemophiliacs are no longer shunned for using blood clotting factors under special circumstances. The church also seems to be heading towards the direction of allowing autologous blood donation, a process where a patient donates blood for storage that is used later in his own surgeries.

This raises the question, why not speed up the process? Why let so many people die in the past because of rules that will ultimately change in the future? Can’t Jehovah’s Witnesses just skip all the politics and allow their followers to use modern medicine like everyone else? It would certainly place the religion in a better light by removing one of its most significant criticisms. A giant weight would be lifted from the backs of so many hemophiliacs, anemics and pregnant mothers.

In the USA, the law requires doctors to overrule the wishes of families that want to deny their children procedures that would prevent long-term complications and death. This is not true around the world, however, and here in Poland, where I go to school, that is not the case. Doctors need to acquire court orders to treat children who’s parents deny them basic lif e support or treatments that would prevent end-organ damage.

As for the baby whom I saw myself in the hospital, well she did receive a court-ordered life-saving blood transfusion. If she hadn’t, there’s no doubt she might not be alive anymore. According to the resident physician, when the parents heard of this they decided to give her up for adoption. It’s still a mystery to me how religions can override our most innate emotions. To me, however, the adoption was a blessing in disguise.

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A reply:

 
 Really, nothing has changed with regard to JW views on transfusion other than adjustments to keep pace with changes in transfusion therapy. In recent years, fractions have been developed that are a much tinier component of blood than the platelets, RBCs, white cells, and plasma you mention. The Bible speaks only of blood. Are these small fractions “blood” or not? Some will reason that any percentage, no matter how tiny, constitutes blood; others will think “it’s not a cake until you mix the ingredients.” I do not agree that the Watchtower Society discourages these fractions. Rather, they make clear that their use is subject to individual conscience, since the Bible doesn’t specifically say. By outlining the reasons some might decide to refuse them, you might think they are discouraging the fractions, however they also outline the reasons others might accept, making clear that it is a personal choice.

Only when the most superior leaders of a religion decide that it should be changed does the doctrine itself change.

In my opinion, it is not good to look at matters in this way. It will inevitably lead to looking down on your patient, maybe thinking them deluded, manipulated fools, given to fanaticism. Can that possibly lead to mutual respect or the trust a patient ought to be able to have in a doctor? Moreover, if you view them as slaves to “superior leaders of a religion,” that is another disconnect, since they do not view it that way. The “superior leaders” may have alerted them to what the Bible says, but having done that, it is the Bible itself that guides the Christian conscience, and not the leaders. Proceeding on an interpretation which the patient does not hold can only cause alienation.

Having said this, I can well appreciate the frustration of a doctor upon discovering his preferred method of treatment, perhaps his only method of treatment, is categorically rejected for reasons he neither understands nor agrees with. However, respect for the patient’s conscience might permit the doctor to make a mental adjustment. If a patient had a severe allergy, say, that absolutely ruled out the preferred treatment, doctors would not become angry, nor resent the patient for being uncooperative. Rather, they’d accept it as part of the big picture, and try to work with it. Every population of Jehovah’s Witnesses maintains a Hospital Liaison Committee, which serves to connect local doctors with whatever bloodless resources may exist locally, if only to arrange a transfer. (not sure what is available in Poland, as I am in the U.S., but it may be more than you are aware) Bloodless medicine is a specialty, and one can hardly expect all doctors to specialize. We simply appreciate it when doctors attempt to work with our beliefs, rather than trod over them.

The fact is that Jehovah’s Witnesses have decided to live their lives in harmony with Bible principles. In most cases, this serves them very well. The same Bible that prevents them from accepting blood transfusions also prevents them from drug abuse, from overdrinking, from smoking. If the entire population became Jehovah’s Witnesses, surely the mortality rate would plummet, since any complications arising from their view on blood is far offset by benefits from their overall healthy lifestyle. If a doctor focuses on this larger picture, he could not ask for a better patient. But regarding blood, the Bible says what it says. Witnesses don’t have the authority to change it, not even the “superior leaders.” It says it not once, but repeatedly, over many different timeframes. Moreover, Witnesses are well aware that eating blood and accepting a transfusion are not the same thing. But the Bible reasons that preclude “eating” blood apply equally to accepting it via another means.

If you are aware of the advancing nature of science-based medicine, surely you know that rethinking transfusion therapy is an area in which it is most rapidly advancing. A 2008 article in New Scientist magazine is entitled: An Act of Faith in the Operating Room. The act of faith is not withholding a transfusion. It is giving one. Says Gavin Murphy, a cardiac surgeon at the Bristol Heart Institute in the UK: “There is virtually no high-quality study in surgery, or intensive or acute care – outside of when you are bleeding to death – that shows that blood transfusion is beneficial, and many that show it is bad for you:”

 The U.S. Army is now training its medical personnel in bloodless medicine, convinced that such training will save both lives and money. By eliminating the risk of foreign tissue, human error, and blood-borne diseases, these new techniques offer a safety margin that conventional blood transfusions do not. Might the day come, or is it here already, when the number of lives saved through such medicine will outnumber those lost by a few members of a relatively tiny religious group that stuck to its principles amidst much opposition?

Lastly, according to the resident physician, “when the parents heard of this they decided to give her up for adoption.”  I can’t conceive of this happening. Not that I doubt your sincerity in telling the matter. But for it to be true, there have to be other factors at work. No one in the Witness community would think such an outcome a good idea. Perhaps the parents were otherwise unstable? Perhaps the state removed the child and left the parents no choice? I don’t know. But it doesn’t ring true. Jehovah’s Witnesses will strive diligently for their Bible-based view on blood to be respected. But if they are overruled (which often happens, as you point out) they don’t lose interest in the child.

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There were other comments on the post besides mine. One also took issue with that parting slam at the parents: “However, the hearsay at the end – about the postulated adoption – is unsubstantiated and feels slanderous. It detracts from the otherwise well-founded observations and arguments you’ve made.” The author Matt apparently agreed: “Point taken,” he wrote. “I will try to keep this into account in my future blogs.”

I also thought it well to take a look at that May 1994 Awake quote which Matt uses to advance the notion JW youths are dropping like flies for their transfusion refusals:

“In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.”

Not that I accuse Matt of anything devious. I've no doubt he used the quotation in good faith. It's likely from a web source purporting to be informative, but in reality existing only to denigrate a faith its  author detests, trying to make JWs look as fanatical as possible, and doing so for philosophical reasons, rather than anything having to do with medicine or lives. So is the statement taken out of context or not?

It's a little difficult to tell, for there is no context. The quote is a one-line blurb on the magazine's table of contents designed to pique interest in the articles to follow. The articles to follow describe the cases of five Witness youngsters in North America. Each was admitted into a hospital for aggressive cancer or leukemia. Each fought battles with hospitals, courts, and child welfare agencies determined to administer blood against the patient's will. Each eventually prevailed in court, being recognized as “mature minors” with the right to decide upon their own treatment (though in two cases, a forced transfusion was given prior to that decision). Three of the children did die. Two lived. It's rather wrenching stuff, with court transcripts and statements of the children involved, and those of the participating doctors, lawyers, and judges. In no case do you get the sense that blood transfusions offered a permanent cure, only a possible prolonging of life, ideally long enough for some cure to be discovered (which has not yet happened). One of the children, who did die, was told that blood would enable her to live only three to six months longer, during which time she might “do many things,” such as “visit Disney World.” There's little here to suggest that “thousands of youths are dying for putting God first” who would otherwise live. Frankly, I think the quote is sloppily written. “They are still doing it,” says the quote. Doing what? Dying? Dying in the thousands? Or putting God first without regard for the immediate consequences?
….........................................

Speaking of a respectful doctor-patient ralationship, a week after Weedsandwheat had his letter in defense of Jehovah's Witnesses published, City Newspaper published this letter:

…....In my practice years, I served three counties, which meant that I cared for children in at least six families of Jehovah's Witness faith. We worked together in a sense of communication, mutual respect, and understanding. This included ongoing discussion of therapeutic options for various conditions. I'm not sure whether today the Internet would change all of this. Hopefully my “families” might still remember me.          Bernard A. Yablin MD      (do a Google search, and this doctor pops up quite a bit)

It's an oddly touching letter, isn't it? Yes, hopefully they do remember him. Doctors proficient in their craft, who can also relate to the patient with “a sense of communication, mutual respect, and understanding,” are not that easy to find.

******************

Tom Irregardless and Me    No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Comments

Nick

I'm glad someone takes the time to respond to these inaccurate postings/articles. I sometimes think about doing that, there's much I could say, but I usually don't bother due to the time it takes me to string just a few sentences together. Anyway, I remember early this year, when a teenage Witness from the UK was hit by a car & sadly died sometime later. The story soon hit the internet about his accident and being a JW along with the question of blood transfusions. Of course, you had the usual apostate’s posting their tripe, along with other ridiculous and hurtful comments, such as, "the parents should be charged with his murder...", etc, but the overall theme of the comments was one of assumption.

Assumption that blood transfusion would of saved his life, assumption he died because he did not get a transfusion, assumption that no other alternative treatment was given & assumption to the extent of his injuries - This all within 48hrs of his accident/death - it took weeks for an autopsy to be done. I'm not aware of its findings, but I do know the boy had severe abdominal and leg injuries.

Did you get around to watching the recent PBS programme on blood transfusions?

tom sheepandgoats

Nick: I suspect that, if a Witness passed through a meat grinder and afterwards failed to receive a transfusion, the omitted transfusion would be listed as cause of death.

Nick

Here is the link for the programme if you have not already seen it.
The Truth About Transfusions: A PBS Presentation (video)
http://www.sabm.org/news/detail.php?id=1310

Mike Felker

Hey Tom, just in case you aren't monitoring the responses to the linked blog, I just wanted to let you know that I responded with a contrasting view (obviously!), to which I indirectly and directly responded to your points.

tom sheepandgoats

Mike:

I went over and read your comments. I consider them ridiculous.

You are outraged over any Witness deaths following a transfusion refusal? And you consider JW leaders to be responsible? Where is your similar condemnation of churches worldwide who say nothing as members overdrink, take drugs, smoke....the deaths from any of these items dwarfing anything to do with blood? For that matter, where is your condemnation of those churches who have no problem with members directly spilling blood in one of this world's never-ending conflicts? That you have no problem with these things, yet are livid with the comparatively tiny number of deaths connected with beliefs of a religion you hate, pins you as the most biased of commenters.

You've also searched thousands of pages of printed material to come up with a few quotes expressing loyalty toward an organization. All you've done is uncover the authority that exists in the Christian congregation, no less in the first century than now. Acts chapter 15, in particular, makes clear that there was a human organization in the first century which exercised much authority....their decisions on policy (in Acts 16:4,5) are called “decrees.” It wasn't just individuals with their personal relationships with Jesus back then. There was also an organization to provide leadership.

And what is this posing to Matt as though you, like he, were a friend of science? Do you seriously think your views and his mirror each other on scientific matters? Why don't you share your views on hellfire with him? Frankly, his opening criticism of religion in general, largely, doesn't apply to us. He complains that religion is structured in such a way that it cannot change. We have a governing body, which in some ways mirror the role of a country's Supreme Court, to allow for change so that members are able to apply Bible principles to constantly changing modern developments.

Moreover, here's another site running a recent BBC news interview with some individual Witnesses, which include questions as to their stand on blood. See if you can find any sense that they're being coerced by leaders of a religion. Instead, they are acting on their Bible-trained conscience:

http://tinyurl.com/25tctok

TJ

Well-stated reply Tom. I've also replied to a medical workers' annoyed posting over our refusal of blood in the past. When you dispassionately explain our stand along with the proactive approach we take on the issue, they tend to lessen their opposition and give a little more respect.

Far from being ignorant on the matter, Witnesses are probably *far* more educated on the subject than the general populace. Meanwhile, it's common to find news articles praising the advances made in bloodless medicine and their benefits over transfusions.

Of course, this will always be an issue that our enemies will flock to until it becomes a non-issue, as bloodless medicine slowly takes over. But until then, they'll jump on the bandwagon with their crocodile tears just for the opportunity to shake their heads in unison with the anti-religious at the 'fanaticism'; then they can feel extra 'rational' while they're getting their digs in. I find it appalling myself.

Jay

Some more info here http://tiny.cc/7frur about blood

tom sheepandgoats

Thank you, TJ. I do want to make clear that I have no criticism for Matt. Given their healing goals, one can hardly expect doctors to relinquish their tried & true ol standby without some serious soul-searching. Considering that he has been fed only partially accurate information about our beliefs, why not, from his point of view, post an article such as he has posted? He has treated me with respect on his blog, by letting my answer stand without rebuttal. I suspect he still doesn't agree with it, but considers it food for thought, representing a perspective he has not previously considered.

Mike, however, is a different matter entirely. Crocodile tears, indeed. It's a perfect description.

Nick

Someone recently uploaded to youtube a 20 year old audio interview with Dr Ron Lapin, one of the first surgeons to treat JW's with bloodless surgery. I've copied the video to my channel as I'm adding (slowly) subtitles to it - the audio is not the best quality, but is mostly understandable imo.
(the interview begins at around the 1minute 20sec mark)...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zBGEnlCknM

Nick.

tom sheepandgoats

I recall reading of this fellow ages ago. Wasn't it in some magazine article, like Life? He took a lot of heat for his views, but he sure does present them persuasively. I'd love to have a transcript of this audio.

Amanda

Hi Tom and others,

First, by way of introduction, I've been reading this blog for a couple years now and find it to be a good read. I am not a JW, but find myself simpathetic to JWs in some respects and don't have any axes to grind with them. I have a question concerning blood. I understand you don't accept blood transfusions based on what you believe the Bible says concerning blood. I believe it says the same concerning blood, and given that I'm Jewish, I keep kosher, which means avoiding certain foods because the Bible says to do so, and in the foods I do eat I make sure that there is no blood in them. So my question is, if JWs avoid blood transfusions because of the Bible's rulings on blood, do they keep kosher too, and if not, why not?

TC

@ Amanda
First , cool approach to the subject , very "Neutral Area " sort of , But Foodies may go nuts with this .
Kosher is based on what you might Call the "Old Testament " or More accurately the Torah in your beliefs .
But Jehovah's Witnesses Follow Jesus teachings as well as the principals of all the Hebrew Law ( Which are contained in Jesus Teachings) . To which Jesus said " It is not what proceeds into a man that defiles him , but what proceeds Out of a man that defiles him " think about that for a sec . What we consume food wise he considered not a defilement in any way , ( Mentally or Spiritual consumption is a different story ) But What comes OUT of us , Our Words , Our actions , Our deeds .How we Think or feel about things and what we do are what either benefit us or defile us . The Apostle Paul also relates the same thoughts . When he said " 12 All things are lawful for me; but not all things are advantageous. All things are lawful for me; but I will not let myself be brought under authority by anything. 13 Foods for the belly, and the belly for foods; but God will bring both it and them to nothing. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. 14 But God both raised up the Lord and will raise us up out of [death] through his power."

You see the Purpose of Jesus presence was to Fulfill the Mosaic Law ( Which his Death did ) and Why Paul said " All things are Lawfull for me , Just not all of it is advantageous ( Boy do we know this principal ) Yeah I can do whatever I wanna ! But ...... Might not be to my best interest if I do it

But notice he makes reference to Belly for the Foods and foods for the Belly ...

It was the understanding and is , that Food ( with the exception of the Blood issue , Is for our enjoyment . Improperly Bled foods if we know of it we wont eat it , but How often do you really get the info in a restaurant ? not often unless you are over vigilant and then you wont often get the truth . So we dont worry so much about the food , I live in Japan and there are things over here that would really set you agasp at times for instance " Nikuzushi" or Raw Meat Sushi .....It is VERY popular ......( not to me mind you I prefer my meat cooked Medium rare )

But in each Culture there are Differences and also Witnesses , that have to adapt to that Culture and Food system , And the words of Jesus take a Lot of burden off those shoulders to let them concentrate on" more important things "

http://www.watchtower.org/e/200707/article_02.htm

tom sheepandgoats

Amanda,

Your question came up early in Christian history.

You may know that initially Christianity was a movement only within the Jewish community. But when it was offered to non-Jews, and some 'Gentiles' responded, the question arose over whether these new converts should be charged to keep all the law that was given through Moses.

"And certain men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  But when there had occurred no little dissension and disputing by Paul and Barnabas with them, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute. Accordingly, after being conducted partway by the congregation, these men continued on their way through both Phonicia and Samaria, relating in detail the conversion of people of the nations, and they were causing great joy to all the brothers. On arriving in Jerusalem they were kindly received by the congregation and the apostles and the older men, and they recounted the many things God had done by means of them. Yet, some of those of the sect of the Pharisees that had believed rose up from their seats and said: “It is necessary to circumcise them and charge them to observe the law of Moses." Acts 15:1-5

That chapter 15 of Acts is a record of how the issue was settled. (we use it as a template today for how the governing body decides contemporary matters) The final decision: "Hence my [James, who was apparently presiding then] decision is not to trouble those from the nations who are turning to God, but to write them to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." Acts 15:19 Only four items from the entire law were to be carried over, that regarding blood being among them.

For the most part, Jehovah's Witnesses view the law given through Moses as a temporary law. That law served various purposes. It provided practical rule for when Israel living as a tribal people....gleaning, Jubilee, agricultural, dietary, penal code, sanitation, and so forth. It provided various standards of keeping the Israelites separate from surrounding peoples. It provided types and patterns that, in the NT view, would be fulfilled on a greater scale through Christ. Gal 3:24-25 states that "the Law has become our tutor leading to Christ, that we might be declared righteous due to faith. But now that the faith has arrived, we are no longer under a tutor."

The kosher requirements you mention we view as part of that law, which was fulfilled with Christ. But the requirement to abstain from blood was specifically exempted in that early Christian decision recorded in Acts. It thus lives beyond the Law. And, in fact, it precedes it. God's instruction to Noah, upon emerging from the ark: "Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. As in the case of green vegetation, I do give it all to you. Only flesh with its soul—its blood—you must not eat." Gen 9:3-4. Noah, of course, came long before Moses.

Those verses of Genesis even give the reason - a principle that appears to be eternal, and not just confined to the Mosaic period. Blood represents the "soul" of the creature, it's life. Leviticus 17:11 expands upon this: "For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I myself have put it upon the altar for you to make atonement for your souls, because it is the blood that makes atonement by the soul [in it]" Not only does blood represent the soul, or life, but it is reserved for "the altar for you to make atonement for your souls." In Christian times, the varous animal sacrifices of the OT, always presented with blood," prefigure the blood of Christ, the sacrificial lamb of the Christian's Passover. (1 Cor 5:7) The blood of Christ takes away sin once for all time, (for those who put faith in it) not just temporarily, as did sacrifices under the Law.

Thus, blood represents something very sacred, and is not to be used for any purpose other than what scriptures have outlined, not even for the seemingly noble purpose of attempting to extend one's present life. By adhering to this consistent Bible commandment, Jehovah's Witnesses have affected changes in how the medical world views transfusion therapy, and many safer procedures have been developed.

Linzey

First I find it impossible to believe that the parents decided to give the baby up for adoption. That is ridiculous and there is nothing in the witness beliefs that would encourage or support that decision.

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