The following article is based on a paper I wrote for a college class touching on an issue from my past as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was written with the wider public audience in mind. I have tried to add links where I could without changing too much of the original paper, which was written using MLA formatting.
Blood Transfusions: Parental Rights and the Rights of Children
On Wednesday, November 28, 2007, a Superior Court Judge in Skagit County, Washington ruled that fourteen year old Dennis Lindberg was a “mature minor” and could refuse blood transfusions to treat leukemia, even though his non-custodial parents wanted him to receive blood. According to the Seattle Post-Intellingencer, doctors had given Dennis, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a 70 per cent chance of survival for five years if he received the transfusions, which would have strengthened him to survive cancer treatment. Sadly, Dennis died later that evening in a Seattle hospital (Black).
Courts have generally respected the right of adults or a “mature minor” like Dennis to refuse medical treatment, even in the face of death. However, courts are more likely to intervene when younger children are at risk. In January 2007, the British Columbia provincial government obtained court orders to permit blood transfusions for three premature sextuplet infants whose parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses (Macqueen 34). In non-emergency scenarios, objections to medical treatment based upon religious convictions ought to be respected as long as the child’s welfare is not threatened. Still, a parent’s religious belief should not endanger a child’s life and the welfare of the child trumps parental rights. This may necessitate intervention in some emergency situations to protect a child from a well meaning, but misguided religious zeal.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position against blood transfusions is a religious belief drawn from biblical passages against eating blood, reasoning that transfusions would be similarly condemned. Such interpretations and policies are decided upon by a ruling body of church senior elders who reside at Watchtower headquarters in New York, known as the Governing Body. This ruling council is “the primary spiritual authority among Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Penton 163). The Governing Body proscribes whole blood or “red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets or plasma” (How Do I View Blood Fractions? 3). However, it permits other medical procedures, including organ transplants, fractions made from blood, and various bloodless alternative therapies. This position is adhered to even in emergency situations. For example, an internal Witness publication urges members to
“be firmly resolved before any emergency to refuse blood for yourself and for your children” (Our Kingdom Ministry 3).
The number of members who have died in obedience to the blood taboo is not known. However, in 1994, a Witness publication headlined the pictures of 26 youths who as “mature minors” had died refusing blood (Youths Who Put God First 1). Many Witnesses have survived with alternative therapies, helping to pioneer new bloodless therapies with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, emergency room situations may not allow the luxury of using alternative regimens, particularly a sudden blood loss. Treatment of newborn and premature infants also raise concerns because of the lower amount of blood volume overall and the greater risks from decreased oxygen levels if blood volume is lowered (Macqueen 37).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website states “the State can and should step in to protect a neglected child,” but argues that the situation is different when Witness parents refuse blood for minor children. It cites the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case Parham v. J.R.:
“Simply because the decision of a parent [on a medical matter] involves risks does not automatically transfer the power to make that decision from the parents to some agency or officer of the state” (You Have the Right to Choose).
Attorney Kerry Louderback-Wood critiques their interpretation of Parham in an article in the Journal of Church and State, referring to the landmark Supreme Court case Prince v. Massachusetts (1943). She counters that
“the relevant facts in Parham did not involve the parents’ refusal to accept medical treatment on religious grounds. Indeed, concurring Justice Stewart wrote that a state would have constitutional grounds to preempt the parent’s decision, and defended this position by referring to a seminal case against a Jehovah’s Witness parent who mandated that her minor niece engage in selling [Watchtower] Society magazines in violation of the state’s child labor laws” (Louderback-Wood).
The principle from Prince v. Massachusetts is clear:
“Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”
The Witness publication Our Kingdom Ministry also cites Prince and denies it applies to Witness parents who might deny blood to minor children:
“Witness parents have no intention of ‘martyring’ their children. If they did, why would they take their children to the hospital in the first place? On the contrary, Witness parents willingly seek medical treatment for their children. They love their children and want them to have good health….They want their children’s health problems managed without blood” (Our Kingdom Ministry 4).
This is where the Watchtower Society’s argumentation breaks down. On one hand, Witness “mature minors” who have died for need of blood transfusions are eulogized in Watchtower publications. Yet, on the other hand, the Watchtower Society denies that their members might be making martyrs of their younger children in similar situations.
One reason Witnesses may not think they could be risking harm to their children is because many of them believe bloodless therapies exist for nearly all situations involving blood. Witness publications are replete with information on such alternative treatments and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been directly responsible for the growth of this field of therapy. Still, bloodless therapies do not always work, especially in emergency situations. Louderback-Wood cites this as an example of misrepresentation by the Watchtower Society. She notes that Watchtower publications cite physicians who promote bloodless therapies, falsely implying these physicians oppose the use of blood:
“It builds a case that other doctors wish all surgeons would become bloodless surgeons, when in fact those doctors recognize the benefits of blood transfusions for those who are in desperate need” (Louderback-Wood).
Witness parents may have the right to reject potentially life-saving treatment for themselves. However, a child’s right to life and security is not dependent on the choice of their parents. Nor should a parent’s religious belief be allowed to make a martyr of their child. In non-emergency situations, the courts and doctors should be flexible to permit alternative therapies to blood, while at the same time monitoring their success. Witness children should not be forced to take blood just because it may be viewed as the best treatment available. However, if blood is the only thing that may save a child’s life or if an alternative therapy poses too great a risk, this supersedes the right of a parent to determine what is best for their child. In such situations, the courts should authorize the necessary treatment to protect the child’s welfare. When the child becomes a “mature minor” or an adult, it may choose to risk death than to accept a blood transfusion. No one else can make that choice for another, not even a parent.
Black, Cherie. “Boy dies of leukemia after refusing treatment for religious reasons.” Seattle Post Intelligencer [Seattle, WA] 29 Nov. 2007.
“How Do I View Blood Fractions and Medical Procedures Involving My Own Blood?” Our Kingdom Ministry (Watchtower), 1 Nov. 2006:3.
Louderback-Wood, Kerry. “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Blood and the Tort of Misrepresentation.” Journal of Church and State (5 Sep. 2005):
Macqueen, Ken. “The Sextuplets: Whose Babies Are They?.” Macleans 28 Feb. 2007: 1.
Penton , M. James. Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Our Kingdom Ministry (Watchtower) 1 Sep. 1992: 3.
“You Have the Right to Choose.” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 30 Nov. 2007.
“Youths Who Put God First.” Awake! 22 May 1994: 1.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions from JWFacts
Blood and Life, Law and Love by Ray Franz (former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses)
Jehovah’s Witnesses & Blood Transfusions by T.L. Frazier
The Watchtower’s Handling of Blood by Doug Mason