Background on Jehovah's Witnesses teachings

CTV News/September 6, 2002

The religious group, Jehovah's Witnesses, is the target of complaint by the father of a 17-year-old Bethany Hughes. The Alberta girl died Thursday of leukemia after refusing further blood transfusions, a medical practice banned by the church.

Biblical teachings about blood dictate the way in which Witnesses view its usage. A passage from Genesis 9: 3-4 states: "Only flesh from its soul -- its blood -- you must not eat." They believe that blood once removed from the body should be disposed of and therefore not be transfused in another human's body. Auto-transfusion, use of predeposited blood and any form of blood storage go against the beliefs of Witnesses.

Such restrictions, therefore, create complications in the medical world in which blood transfusions have become common practice to treat life-threatening illnesses. Hughes's case provides a clear example of the delicate issues surrounding blood transfusions. The girl died of leukemia after refusing to undergo further transfusions, which went against the beliefs of her religion. In July she told the court that her refusal to accept blood was for religious reasons. But months into her ordeal, she said her fight had become about a teen's right to choose medical treatment.

Lawrence Hughes, the teen's father, went against his religion by consenting to blood transfusions when his daughter fell ill. Now he's suing Watch Tower Society, the Jehovah Witnesses' legal body, for interfering in the medical treatment of his daughter.

Who are Jehovah's Witnesses?

Jehovah's Witnesses is a Christian religion [sic] that believes in God (Jehovah) and Jesus Christ. Witnesses' beliefs are based on the Bible's principles and models after first-century Christianity. Living through the Bible's teachings, they believe, gives purpose to life, strengthens family and creates honest human beings.

In 2001, there were an estimated 6,117,666 Witnesses worldwide, with Canada's peak membership at 110,818. Source: Watchtower: Jehovah's Witnesses Official Web site

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization incorporated in 1884, publishes its literature and oversees worldwide evangelization by establishing conventions and schools for the ministry of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Jehovah's Witnesses spread their teachings mostly through person-to-person ministry with each congregation reaching out to its neighborhood, at least once a year, with a brief Bible message. Witnesses approach people door to door and in public places.

Legal issues affecting Witnesses

Cases that involve child patients present the greatest concern, because parents often become involved in alleged child-neglect legal issues. However, some physicians and lawyers who deal with Witness cases contend that Witness parents are very much concerned with providing the best medical care for their children.

Parents often ask that alternative therapies, as approved by their religion, be administered to their children. In the U.S., Witnesses sign waiver forms and carry medical document cards that notify health and legal workers about their special conditions. Such documents offer protection to medical authorities against claims of malpractice should anything happen to the Witness patient.

Treatments approved by Jehovah's Witnesses

Many Witnesses permit treatments that do not use blood or employ only minimal amounts.They do not accept transfusions of whole blood, red cells, white cells, platelets, or blood plasma. Dialysis and heart-lung equipment (non-blood-prime) as well as intraoperative salvage where the extracorporeal circulation is uninterrupted are treatments that are acceptable. Source: Watchtower: Jehovah's Witnesses Official Web site

Blood reformers

Despite Jehovah's Witnesses strict and devout worldwide following, there are many who seek to reform the religion's attitude towards blood transfusions. The group, Associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood, believes many people have died unnecessarily due to the religion's strict stipulations on blood. In their Web site, AJWRB states:

Loyal adherence to the blood doctrine has cost thousands of Witnesses their lives. Despite this fact, many elders, Hospital Liaison Committee members and longtime Watchtower observers believe it is only a matter of time before the organization reverses their blood policy, and the use of all blood products becomes a matter of conscience. Source: Associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood (AJWRB)

Blood transfusions

Blood and blood products are a critical part of everyday medical care, such as major surgeries and other medical procedures. Specifically:

  • Red blood cells can be used to help accident victims, surgical patients and people with anaemia
  • Platelets can be used to treat leukemia and cancer patients
  • Plasma is effective in treating patients suffering from burns or shock
  • Cryoprecipitate, an additional component of blood, has been used to treat hemophilia and now other blood disorders
  • Blood transfusions are a critical element of:

  • Organ transplants
  • Cancer therapy
  • Heart surgery
  • Treatment for anemia
  • Treatment for blood disorders
  • Resuscitation of trauma victims
  • Caring for premature infants
    Source: Canadian Blood Services
  • How risky is a transfusion?

    A comparison of transfusion risks to the risks of dying from other common causes:

  • Serious disease or death from transfusion: 1 chance in 200,000 / year
  • Death from electrocution: 1 chance in 200,000 / year
  • Death from drowning: 1 chance in 35,000 / year
  • Death from a car accident: 1 chance in 7,000 / year
  • Death from pneumonia or influenza: 1 chance in 3,000 / year
  • Death from cancer: 1 chance in 500 / year
  • Death from stroke or heart disease: 1 chance in 300 / year
    Source: Canadian Hemophilia Society

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