Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions for Minors

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).

Jehovah's Witnesses are known for refusing blood transfusions.

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.

A 1994 Awake! magazine (published by Jehovah's Witnesses) recounted how 26 children had died for refusing blood medical therapy.

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.

Works Cited

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.

Further Reading:

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

What’s Wrong with the Witnesses

A Memorial to a False Prophecy

 

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12 Responses to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions for Minors

  1. Jehovah’s Witnesses Bloodless Surgery Propaganda

    Bloodless emergency treatment is an oxymoron
    Watchtower blood transfusion confusion

    Simple fact-The Bible does not prohibit Blood transfusions.If you are bleeding to death it is more dangerous to refuse a blood transfusions than to take one. Bloodless surgeries are great if they can be elective.1/3rd of all trauma deaths are from blood loss.
    When paramedics show up at an accident scene, quite often somebody needs blood (hypovolemia) or they’re going to die.

    Bloodless emergency treatment is an oxymoron

    Blood can be dangerously infectious but 1/3rd of all trauma deaths are from bleeding out,so not taking emergency blood is more lethal.
    For elective surgeries by all means avoid a transfusion by banking your own blood or building up your own existing potency with vitamins etc.
    The Watchtower society will not allow a JW to bank their own blood
    FYI 1) JW’s DO USE many parts aka ‘fractions’ aka components of blood,so if it’s ‘sacred’ to God why the hypocritical contradiction flip-flop? 2) They USE blood collections that are donated by Red Cross and others but don’t donate back,more hypocrisy.

    The thousands of deaths caused by the Watchtower misinterpretation of the Bible does not go away nor is it justified because of emerging bloodless treatment technology.

    The Bible says nothing about blood transfusions. The Bible passages in question (kosher law) have to do with diet.
    This deadly doctrine by the Watchtower leadership is killing men,woman and children.

    The Watchtower leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are hypocrites, they promote no blood while at the same time use many blood fractions. They trump the advantages of bloodless surgeries and try to grab the credit for it when in fact bloodless techniques were pioneered by non-JW doctors because of the shortage of blood donors (e.g. all the JW’s who use blood fractions but don’t donate back)

    Within the Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine on blood there are major inconsistencies. For instance, a Witness cannot except red blood cells but they can except hemoglobin which constitutes 97% of a red blood cell.
    They cannot except a minor blood component like platelets, which constitutes .17% of blood volume, but can except albumin, which constitutes a larger 2.2% of blood volume. I challenge any of Jehovah’s Witness to show me from the Bible why accepting platelets is a sin against God but taking albumin is acceptable for a Christian. If you cannot show this from the Bible you have to admit that you are not following the Bible but rather the shifting opinion of men, namely the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    * HEMOPURE *

    Reg;Bovine Cow blood derived HEMOPURE
    The Watchtower has approved the use of Hemopure® (bovine hgg – 250/HBOC -201). This is directly in opposition to the Watchtower’s abstaining from blood as taught by them.

    See: http://www.ajwrb.org/basics/hemopure.shtml
    for information about this conflicting information.

    The followers of the Watchtower are taught one thing and the Watchtower practices another to release it self from responsibility so they publicly state the use of blood is a conscientious matter.

    The deeply controlled followers seek approval from the leadership which means approval from God to them so they rather let a child die than suffer from disapproval, congregational social repercussions, disfellowshipping, and shunning.
    The Watchtowerites sincerely believe the conflicting messages.

    http://www.ajwrb.org/basics/abstain.shtml
    Jehovah Witness blood policy reform site
    The Elephant in the room

    ——
    Watchtower Whistleblower
    Danny Haszard Bangor Maine

  2. Susan Peterson says:

    I am concerned that the laws used to force JW’s to allow their children to have blood transfusions might be used to force women to have C sections because some doctor says one is necessary. Doctors now are saying that C sections must be done-for all breech babies, for babies they think will be too large, and for all sorts of other reasons which are not absolute indications. What about parents freedom to choose to birth at home? If the child’s welfare comes before the parent’s choice, will we be dragging women into the hospital to have a C section when they have planned a home birth? Some people wrongly imagine that this is always dangerous, no matter how trained the person attending the birth is.

    I think the JW position is really nutso, to be honest. Blood transfusions are clearly NOT what Scripture means by “abstain from meat offered to idols and from blood.” But if we take their children from them and treat them contrary to their parents beliefs, what else might we do?

    Right now there is a situation where Child Protective Services took a child away from the parents because the woman gave birth to her at home. When they found out the baby was breech and the hospital was insisting on a C section they left and had the baby at home. The baby suffered some transitory nerve damage in her arms, (something which happens fairly frequently in the hospital with vertex babies whose shoulders get stuck), and when this was discovered, someone called in CPS and the baby was taken from its mother. After a month or so, the baby still has not been returned to its parents.

    By the rule applied to the JW’s, the hospital could have arrested the woman and forcibly C sectioned her.

    I vote for freedom in this case.

    • orthocath says:

      Thanks, Susan, for visiting and for your comments. I understand some of your concerns about C sections. My wife attempted VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarian) with our second child but had uterine rupturing. Still, our wish would have been not to have a C Section a second time. The situation you describe with CPS sounds like a crazy and inappropriate response by the State.

      I think what I’m advocating in this article is different. 1) There is not universal agreement by medical professionals that C Sections are the only thing that will preserve life. 2) There are two people involved — mother and child. Correct me if I’m wrong but have courts forced a mother to have a C section? Legally, as I understand, the mother’s wishes have been held to be paramount.

      When courts intervene with JW minors it’s a different scenario. Blood is the only thing that will keep the young child alive and alternative therapies will not be sufficient. A vote for “freedom” in this case means the parent’s wishes are obeyed and the child likely dies. I think this indicates the State must step in to protect the child.

      • joe says:

        You’re absolutely correct about the blood issue. I’m a physician and have been having these types of discussions with JWs for many, many years and unfortunately it’s like talking to a brick wall. It’s criminal how many people have died unnecessarily for refusing blood on the basis of misinterpreted scriptures. As for the previous responder who is concerned about MDs forcing women to have C-sections, that cannot happen. Women are free to choose whatever manner of birth they please but also need to realize the risks involved for their particular situation. Women can speak to a variety of physicians about her desires and choose whomever she feels comfortable with and who is willing to go along with her wishes.

  3. Susan Peterson says:

    My goodness, I am so sorry she had a rupture. I am glad she survived. I hate to ask, but I hate not to ask also; did your child survive? If he or she did not, I am so sorry, and forgive me for blundering into a sensitive place.

    Only read this paragraph if everything pretty much turned out OK.

    I hear of so many successful VBACs and I had 8 babies vaginally after my C section. I have never before spoken to anyone who had a rupture. Were there risk factors above and beyond having had a C section? (Such as infection after the first C section, classical or T incision? ) Was she given pitocin to induce or augment labor? I guess these are very nosy questions. I am just asking from the point of view of someone who encourages people to attempt VBACS and advocates for their relative safety. So your little bit of data is valuable to me in my attempt to get a true picture.

    Women have been court ordered to have C sections. In one case in NJ, the woman delivered a healthy baby vaginally while the hospital was obtaining a court order to force her to have a C section. One woman had her child taken away from her because she refused a C section, even though she delivered normally. After a long court battle she has just recently gotten the child back. In this case the woman actually wrote in and commented on some of the blogs discussing the case, and she seemed a bit “off” to me-but then, she had had her infant taken from her.

    Right at this very moment there is a couple whose baby, named Ruth, has been taken from them because they left a hospital when told that their baby had turned to breech and they would have to have a C section. They went home and the baby was born with just the parents present. It isn’t true, of course, that breech babies “can’t” be born vaginally, but it is a higher risk situation, one which often called for the skills the previous generation of OB’s worked hard to develop, skills which are almost lost now; practiced only by a very few midwives.

    In this case the baby was born successfully, but with a partial paralysis of her arms, similar to that which often happens after a shoulder dystocia in a head first baby in the hospital. When the parents noticed this, they took the baby in to the hospital to be checked out, someone called child protective and the baby was taken away. The parents have been allowed supervised visitation, and the child is with grandparents, so I think eventually they will get the child back; but of course this is very disruptive to bonding and breast feeding.

    So no, the right to refuse any treatment so long as one is competent is not always extended to pregnant women. The “pro-choice” people in the natural birth movement see this as similar to the prohibition of abortion, preventing women from controlling their own bodies. You and I both believe that there is another person involved, so it is not so easy for me to say that there should be no advocate for the unborn baby in these situations. It is just that I think that most of the time the hospital is wrong when it asserts that a C section is necessary. But what about the times that they are correct?

    Susan Peterson

    • orthocath says:

      I don’t want to get too side-tracked onto the other subject of C sections, though it is important. Both Mom and baby survived and the culprit was likely the pitocin to induce labor. Thanks for your concern and sensitivity.

      Again, I agree that the situations you describe are horrendous. Still, I believe the situation of letting a minor bleed out because of a parent’s religious objection to using blood goes contrary to established precedent as per Prince v. Massachusetts. If another therapy is shown to be effective, then that’s another issue. But, even the doctors who are pioneering bloodless therapies admit that there are those times when they will not do what blood can do. It’s those situations that make us face such the unpleasant situation of involving the courts to protect a child.

  4. Susan Peterson says:

    But can’t you see that if we interfere with the religious liberty of JW’s to make medical decisions for their children, we have to consider that the same principle can be applied to ourselves?

    I’ll drop the C section issue. How about high schools which have on site clinics, which prescribe contraceptives for minor girls, even those in their early teens, without the permission of their parents, without even informing their parents? Suppose authorities decided a 15 year old girl “should” have an abortion for her emotional welfare, and the parents objected-do they have the right to prevent it? What if the HPV vaccine were mandatory and parents objected?

    Just because WE think the blood issue is silly, isn’t enough reason to abrogate the rights of parents, in my opinion. Because the world thinks our opinions are worse than silly, in many cases.

    Susan Peterson

    • orthocath says:

      Again, in this article I have not argued against the Witness interpretation as “silly.” I do disagree with their biblical interpretation but that’s not the focus of this article.

      The difference of the blood issue with the issues you are describing is this: there are times that children will die if they do not receive blood — even those who are in the forefront of bloodless medicine acknowledge this. In those situations, the right of a minor who cannot make decisions for themselves to continue living trumps the parent’s religious rights. That’s what the courts have held and I think their position was decided with good reason.

      To let a child bleed out to honor a religious objection of a parent is something we cannot stand by and watch.

  5. Susan Peterson says:

    I believe the courts will see these issues as related and would use the JW issue as a precedent for other decisions we wouldn’t like.
    How would you write a legal decision to allow the state to override the JW’s parental objections to having their children receive blood transfusion, in such a way that it left intact a parents right to prevent their minor child from being given condoms, or the HPV shot, or having an abortion? All of those could be interpreted by some as life-saving in some circumstances.
    Susan Peterson

    • orthocath says:

      The difference here is we’re not talking about “mature minors,” but children who are not able to make the life-saving decision of receiving blood when nothing else will work. Courts have held that a fourteen year old could possibly make the decision not to receive blood as a “mature minor” and allowed to make the decision to die without blood. My article is discussing a different set of children: those who are younger and cannot make their own decision.

      Further, we’re talking about immediate death with regards to these younger children. As it stands, courts allow for an exemption for parents who have religious objection to vaccinations. There is no move to force parents who object to vaccinations on religious grounds to have their children immunized. This would be akin to your concerns about the older children being possibly forced to receive condoms, etc.

      But when it comes to the immediate danger of death due to loss of blood for younger children who can not make the decision to be a martyr for their faith and nothing else medically will work there is the need to step in to protect them.

  6. Vicky says:

    I have a daughter who is looking to have another baby, the last birth was difficult she has just joined and am struggling to cope can anybody help?

  7. It is a slippery slope to say that because courts intervene in the matter of blood transfusions for minors that this will mean that the courts will begin forced c – sections. It could happen sure, but not because of the blood transfusion issue. The issue with forced rejection of blood transfusion on the part of the parent over the child is that there is no way to know if the child will still be a JW when they grow up. I was a JW till I was 30. If my parents had refused a blood transfusion for me when I was 17, I wouldn’y be writing thid now. As a child, I just didn’t have the perspective and life experience to know that religious beliefs are very transient and fickle. Few people die of old age with the same beliefs they had as a child. If they did, one would have to wonder how observant or intelligent or even how sane they are. Children have childish beliefs based not on their own mature reasoning, but on their parents reasoning. They believe whatever mommy and daddy believe. For a judge in a real courtroom to not know this, it is a tragedy. That child of 14 could be alive right now standing on the street corner flashing Watchtower magazines, or he could be in college studying to be a doctor and no longer associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But we’ll never know how the adult person will turn out because we killed him. Well, actually, his parents killed him, over an interpretation of a vague scripture that apparently only JWs in all the world know what it means. Even all the world’s Biblical scholars are just clueless abnout that complicated mystery of a scripture, but by golly, JWs have it all figured out, and that’s why we should let children die, so sure are we all that JWs have that scripture figured out.

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