A religious tug-of-war

Often, beliefs are at odds with medical community

Boston Herald/February 19, 1999
By Jules Crittenden

Lying in a hospital bed in intense pain with a lacerated spleen, 17-year-old Alexis Demos found herself in the middle of a legal and religious tug-of-war.

As a Jehovah's Witness, she and her father had made it clear to the doctors at Berkshire Medical Center Jan. 26 that she would not accept a blood transfusion. Citing the Bible's Acts and Leviticus, the Witnesses say they are barred from taking any blood, God's symbol of life, into their mouths or veins.

Doctors wanted to be ready to pump life-saving blood into her if she needed it. The hospital called a judge to an impromptu hearing in a hospital conference room.

``My mom came in teary eyed, saying the judge ruled the approval. I said, I can take the needle out of my arm,'' Demos said.

``We made a decision as a family long ago not to accept blood,'' said her father Alec Demos.

While he notes there are some alternatives to transfusions, he said he would not accept blood for himself or his family even if it meant risking death.

``That goes with the territory,'' Alec Demos said.

Alexis Demos, now recuperating at home from her snowboarding accident, never needed the transfusion. The state Appeals Court ruled Tuesday that Judge Judd Carhart's order is moot.

But in the future, the appellate judges wrote, the wishes of mature minors should be weighed along with the wishes of the parents and the state's interests in protecting a minor. Demos was never directly consulted by the judge.

Alexis Demos said she is firm in her conviction: ``Jehovah God sets guidelines in the Bible. Life is a precious thing. In the bible, life is represented by blood. Once blood is poured out, you don't do anything with it. You let it go back into the ground.''

The legal crisis posed by her case underscores the heartrending conflict that periodically occurs between secular law and religious conviction.

It marked the court battle that the Twitchells, a Christian Science family formerly of Hyde Park, fought to defend their choice of spiritual healing methods rather than medical care when their son, Robyn, suffered a fatal bowel obstruction in 1986.

Their manslaughter conviction was overturned in 1993 when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled parents are obliged to seek medical care for their children, but the Twitchells could have reasonably believed their religious practices were protected under the law.

Donald Ridley, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer, said he welcomes the appellate ruling that recognized a minor's right to speak for herself.

``It advances, it clarifies the law,'' Ridley said.

Christian Science does not ban members from accepting medical treatment, though many members rely exclusively on spiritual healing. Jehovah's Witnesses are allowed most treatments except tranfusions.

James Pellechia, a Jehovah's Witness spokesman, said a variety of treatments are available that can make blood transfusions unnecessary.

They include medication to boost the production of red blood cells, fluids that boost blood volume to maintain blood pressure and oxygen treatments. Circulation systems that recover a patient's blood lost during surgery and immediately return it to the body are considered acceptable by Jehovah's Witnesses. Dr. Lynn Peterson, a Harvard Medical School ethicist, said despite efforts to accommodate Jehovah's Witnesses - adults are rarely compelled to take blood - it is routine for hospitals to seek a court order to be prepared when they admit a minor Witness.

He and others say in some cases, only a blood transfusion will do. Heidi Waitkus of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center's Bloodless Medicine and Surgery Center said those situations include major traumatic loss of blood and treatments such as chemotherapy that kills blood platelets.

Ridley, who has fought several legal battles over transfusions, said he expects to fight again.

``It involves your integrity to your God. Witnesses who have had transfusions against their will or without their knowledge say it's like rape. It's a bodily violation. In Anglo-American law, the integrity of your person, being touched in anyway, is a very serious matter. A transfusion is a very serious touching.''

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