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14th Mar

2010

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusion

blood-trans

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.

Even seemingly well-established techniques like Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), are under constant debate. Chest compression-to-ventilation ratios were changed in 2005 from 15:2 to 30:2, and now are challenged altogether with a compression-only technique. Such changes in medical procedure are not only common, but are expected to occur in the face of new studies and evidence. This fundamental component of science-based medicine allows patients to be assured that they receive the most current and up-to-date healthcare.

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. It took almost 300 years for the church to accept heliocentrism, and only last year did the Vatican accept evolution, exactly 150 years after Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species. Even such central understandings of the universe and biology are difficult for religions to accept.

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.

wt6-15-04A.jpg

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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Comments

RobotHouse

2010-03-15 01:59:33

Will Jehober lemme git my Horse Placentumz?

Nathallie

2010-03-15 22:11:13

This entry links to some good pages. (“…the idea of evolution could be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.” Move over, Darwin! You think you were original? We were just upset you were trying to get credit for our Saints’ ideas.)

Not mentioned, but which I find interesting, is the history of the Watchtower Society’s changing stances on the topic, and the inherent hypocrisies that come up (which are mentioned in one of the links: that one can use molecules that must come from blood donation, but one cannot donate blood).

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.

    Matt Roman

    2010-03-16 14:47:22

    Point taken. I will try to keep this into account in my future blogs. Thanks for the constructive criticism and feedback.

      spencer d

      2010-04-08 20:40:25

      i thought the whole point of this blog was for Matt to give his ideas! I agree with the court-ordered transfusion, and I am a parents-rights advocate. When I see a government-parents dispute, in my eyes, the burden of proof is always on the government. I won’t forget when the state of New Jersey took away a boy from his parents because they were Nazi sympathizers and named him Hitler. As a Jewish American, I was outraged. Taking a child away from parents because of political beliefs is un-American, not to mention unconstitutional, even if his parents were nutjobs.
      In this case, when a child’s life is on the line, and parents are unwilling to make a life-saving decision, I side with the government.

      Nathallie

      2010-07-08 13:58:27

      Hi Spencer! I also agree with the court-ordered transfusion, for the reasons you mentioned. Adults can make such decisions for themselves, but effective life-saving therapy should not be withheld from children. My comment was about how it’s not known that the parents actually did give the baby up for adoption, and I highly suspect that the doctor’s comment on this is not based on fact – for the reasons in Tom’s last paragraph below.

tom sheepandgoats

2010-03-16 22:52:22

(Sorry, last submission had some spelling errors, which I’ve corrected. If you use either, you might use this one):

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, perhaps 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 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 superior 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 does not agree with, and likely does not understand. 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 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 priniciples. In most cases, this serves them very well. The same Bible which prevents them from accepting blood transfusions also prevents them from drug abuse, from overdrinking, from smoking. If the entirely population were to become Jehovah’s Witnesses, surely the mortality rate would plummet, since any complications arising from their view on blood would be far offset by benefits from healthy living elsewhere. 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, nor do the “superior leaders” of the religion. It says it not once, but repeatedly, in 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 (reviewed here) 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 surgion 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:”

http://tinyurl.com/6n9lvx

The U.S. Army is now training its medical personnel in bloodless medicine, convinced that such training will save both lives and money:

http://tinyurl.com/y87xcqt

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 even 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. It’s still a mystery to me how religions can override our most innate emotions. I can’t conceive of this happening. Not that I doubt your words. 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.

Nathallie

2010-07-26 12:06:22

Tom, the first few sentences are not true if it’s true that this is what the Watchtower printed back in 1961:

“If you have reason to believe that a certain product contains blood or a blood fraction…if the label says that certain tablets contain hemoglobin…this is from blood…a Christian knows, without asking, that he should avoid such a preparation. – The Watchtower 11/01/1961, p. 669

I’d love to have access to a library of all the WTS publications, and check these references:
http://www.ajwrb.org/history/index.shtml#modern

(As for the Bible saying what it says about blood, Tom, you’re right – it says what it says. But what the meaning is of those words is not obvious. According to the timeline in that link above, blood transfusions were not forbidden until 1945. Before then, it seems that some witnesses were even celebrated for having donated blood.)

It’s still not clear to me, though, if Jehovah’s Witnesses can donate blood to be used as blood products/fractions? (For example, at the clinics they have liaisons to that do bloodless procedures, perhaps in the setting of an emergency where your family member or friend or spiritual brother decides to accept fractions… can another witness donate blood for that?)

    Mike Felker

    2010-10-18 19:28:01

    I’d be happy to provide for you a resource by which you can check all Watchtower references. Shoot me an email and i’ll show you how.

Nathallie

2010-08-03 21:01:45

I found the answer to my question!
“Questions From Readers”, The Watchtower, October 15, 2000, page 31, “Jehovah’s Witnesses…do not donate blood [without preconditions on its use], nor do we store for transfusion our blood that should be ‘poured out.’ That practice conflicts with God’s law. Other procedures or tests involving an individual’s own blood are not so clearly in conflict with God’s stated principles. …the goal may be to isolate some of a blood component and apply that elsewhere… A Christian must decide for himself how his own blood will be handled… Ahead of time, he should obtain from the doctor or technician the facts about what might be done with his blood during the procedure. Then he must decide according to what his conscience permits.”

It’s a good thing Jehovah’s Witnesses can benefit from bloodless surgery, since it almost always relies on blood fractions (allowed post-1960s) and autologous whole blood salvage (allowed post 1989).

Mike Felker

2010-10-18 20:00:07

Matt, I appreciate your posting this and for Tom in bringing this to my attention through his blog. First, I agree with about 99 percent of what you said here. I think you are absolutely correct that religion changes when their authority changes. This is especially true with Jehovah’s Witnesses, regardless of what Tom has said. Yes, they do believe that their teachings are based on the Bible; but only because their organization has told them what the Bible says. Allow their own words to speak for themselves:

“Thus the Bible is an organizational book and belongs to the Christian congregation as an organization, not to individuals, regardless of how sincerely they may believe that they can interpret the Bible. For this reason the Bible cannot be properly understood without Jehovah’s visible organization in mind.” -Watchtower, 10/1/67 p. 587 par. 9

But are Jehovah’s Witnesses obligated to believe anything and everything that the Watchtower teaches without question? Even concerning issues like blood transfusions?

“To hold to the headship of Christ, it is therefore necessary to obey the organization that he is personally directing. Doing what the organization says is to do what he says. Resisting the organization is to resist him.” -Watchtower 5/1/59 p. 269 par. 7

“Respect for Jehovah’s organization means to trust our proved, faithful brothers. These are the ones who through much hardship and experience have demonstrated that the spirit of God is with them. The rich blessing that has been poured out upon the visible organization is evidence that the governing body and those who represent it are deserving of our full support and trust. This we can demonstrate only by accepting every provision as coming from the Lord through the “faithful and discreet slave.” -Watchtower 5/1/57 p. 281 par. 7

So, it is not enough to say that JW’s simply “follow the Bible.” They first follow their leaders, the governing body, concerning what they tell them the Bible says, as the above demonstrates.

Matt, I think you should be rightly outraged by this medical rule they’ve established. By doing so, I believe the organization in charge of all the members is bloodguilty. What many JW’s will not tell you is the many lost lives that have resulted in following the JW leadership. As is mentioned in one of the comments, the leadership once forbade all fractions. How many died from this avoidance until they decided that it was an issue of conscience? If this was just a matter of “following what the Bible teaches,” then surely they would have decided this long before the leadership changed, right? Not at all. As the above quotes demonstrate, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe what the organization tells them to believe.

But this gets worse. For years, the organization forbade organ transplants. How many died or had their health jeopardized by not accepting such a procedure? Were the men and women not simply being faithful to what their leaders told them concerning what the Bible supposedly taught? Yes, men and women are responsible for their own lives. But the leaders must also be held responsible, given their authority claims. Jim Jones convinced hundreds of men, women, and children to commit suicide of their own choice (though many were forced). He was certainly bloodguilty, as is the Watchtower Bible and tract Society.

I would hope that you not throw away the baby with the bathwater here. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are just another “religion that changes with the times.” What they teach dogmatically today may be different from tomorrow. They falsely predict the end of the world time and time again and show that they are not reliable guides. And make no mistake that they are not correct when it comes to their views on blood.

As you correctly pointed out; eating blood is not the same as transfusing it. The Biblical prohibition was strictly with regards the former, as should be obvious to anyone. Though the Bible is, as you say, 2,000 years old (its actually older), it is still God’s infallible, inerrant word on all things it speaks on; whether its faith, values, science, or history. Religion may evolve with the changing times, but God’s Word remains true.

Mike Felker

2010-10-18 21:58:24

For those interested, especially Matt, i’d recommend looking at what Jehovah’s Witness apologist, Greg Stafford, has written concerning blood transfusions in his book, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended.” Stafford agrees and defends the JW’s in many areas, but has some very insightful things to say on the issue of blood. Here’s the excerpt from his book:

http://www.elihubooks.com/data/topical_index/000/000/133/JWD3_Chap_9_Sec_Blood_SITE_4_9.7.10.pdf

Marla

2011-03-17 17:12:21

I am a Disfellowshipped Jehovahs Wittness. I was forced to get baptized at 17. I am now 42. I was at a Dr Appt Yesterday for my 1st Prenatal check up. The Blood Transfusion came up. Last time I had a child was in 1995. I refused a blood Transfusion, Fearing some kind or Wrath. It came up at my Appt & I was really confused on what to do. I looked everywhere I could in the Bible regarding Transfusions. The only thing that came up was Eating, partaking in any form was a sin. Yet It said nothing about Transfusion.
I Have really had a rough life with Guilt about anything & everything I do. I feel I am still Under there Guilt Ridden, Fear inspiring Fear! I Believe in God & Believe Gods Name is Jehovah. I Pray consistantly, Yet I live in sin. I Smoke, I live with my Fiancee, I am Pregnant out of Wed Lock. Am I going to Die? I am working on no longer smoking. Im on three Anti Depressants that Im weaning off. This is a high risk Pregnancy. Two Doctors think I should Abord the Baby! Thats another @nd Death Issue I have to deal with. I just cant do it. I realize Im all over this page.
I just want Fellow people to know that you are not alone. I Honestly in my Mind, Heart & soul Believe that Jehovah God made us all to rely on eachother to Survive & become one. Jehovah will Not Kill us If we take Blood. God is Loving, Understanding & Jesus Died for our sins. I respect the religion, it made me a good person with a conscience. I cant be a Wittness because I dont agree with thier teachings accross the line. I have a very limitefd relationship with my Mother because of this religion. I believe its her Bwall she hides behind to deal with her Violently , disgusting , Abusive past. They teach not to Judge, yet Hypocritically they Judge all people. Every day! Im still leary of Blood Transfusion. I think they look at the Sacrifices that Past Prophets have made & take every step in the bible Literally. Foot step Followers of Jesus Christ! Really?

BloodOnTheirHands

2011-03-20 23:49:21

Blood on Their Hands: The Story of a Hemophiliac Child in the Jehovah’s Witness Cult

The unique story by a hemophiliac who spent part of her childhood in a fundamentalist cult that only prohibited one type of medical treatment–the one she needed to stay alive. This first-ever critique of the church by a hemophiliac member details her experiences nearly dying for the church, how the failed 1975 apocalyptic prediction affected her treatment, and her grisly adventures trying to survive amidst kooky cultists who claimed she was a demon-possessed vampire.

http://stores.lulu.com/ex-jw

Micah Fontneau

2013-01-08 16:20:52

blood transfusion can be risky specially if the blood is not properly screened by pathogens.*

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