Standing up for beliefs

Lenox minor deems ruling a major victory

Boston Globe/February 19, 1999
By Francie Latour

In a lot of ways, Alexis Demos is no different from any other 17-year-old growing up in Lenox.

She likes the Dave Matthews Band. She says the word ''stuff'' a lot. She wants to be a better snowboarder. And she doesn't want people making decisions about her life.

But Demos admits she's always been different.

Seven years ago, while other children were begging for their own phone, Demos was taking vows and tackling tough religious questions in order to be baptized into her parents' religion as a Jehovah's Witness. And last month, while most teenagers were fighting for the keys to the car, an injured Demos took on the medical establishment and the courts for her right to reject a blood transfusion - a transgression forbidden by her faith.

In a landmark ruling Tuesday, an appeals court sided with Demos, giving ''mature'' minors a voice in deciding whether to refuse life-saving medical treatment.

Speaking from her home yesterday after a month-long ordeal of internal bleeding, legal appeals, and an early test of religious belief, Demos said she never doubted her faith or her ability to choose death over the blood of another.

''It was quite a day, one that can never be equaled,'' Demos said of the ruling. ''I guess I'm just glad it's over and I hope it can help the next person who has to go through this.''

Demos, who will turn 18 in October, said she hoped the ruling would pave the way for other embattled minors to assert their legal independence and control medical intervention.

''I really never had the need before to think about the rights of minors. I had never been forced to think about my age in that way,'' she said. ''It was devastating because my rights and my wishes were not being honored. I can't imagine how someone could force something so serious on me without knowing me or understanding what convictions I had.''

The ruling, which allowed courts to consider a child's maturity to reason through an informed decision, cut to the core of legal battles over religious freedom, the state's duty to protect, and murky age-of-consent laws that allow 16-year-olds to drop out of school and have sex but not to make their own medical decisions.

But Demos, who plays the violin and whose father drives her to school each morning, said she never set out to land a legal precedent or embark on a moral quest.

On Jan. 26, when a snowboarding accident left her with a bruised spleen, Demos could barely think through the pain and chaos as she was wheeled into the emergency room at Berkshire Medical Center. By the time she was taken to intensive care, she said, doctors were talking about a possible transfusion if the internal bleeding continued.

''It was kind of scary at first, because everything happened so quickly,'' Demos said. Though her parents had refused the transfusion for their daughter, doctors almost immediately moved to overrule them. ''The hearing happened so fast, with my parents and the lawyers and the doctors all talking. ... But I offered to speak to the judge. I really believe it would have made his job a whole lot easier.''

Well-versed in the Bible from her voluntary door-knocking duties for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Demos knew what it meant to receive blood. In her faith, blood is sacred - so sacred that it was never meant to be eaten or transfused from one person to another. Ten days before her accident, she had updated her blood card refusing any blood.

While friends and peers followed the saga and wondered why their classmate would refuse something that might save her life, Demos said she was prepared to take every step to keep the blood from entering her body.

''I would have resisted in every form, legally, physically, anything,'' Demos said. ''I was completely ready to take the needle right out of my arm if I had to. I would have had no qualms about that at all.''

After a Superior Court ruling allowing the transfusion led to an appeal, Demos was coming out of the danger zone, and was released from the hospital a week after she had been admitted. But far beyond her own health, Demos, who described her family as ''strong-willed,'' said the ruling had become a matter of principle - a quest to secure others' religious rights, not just her own.

''I don't think anyone has the right to make that kind of decision for a person,'' she said. ''This issue of blood transfusions and medical treatment has happened numerous times. It's a huge problem in Europe because the governments there are basically saying doctors can overrule not only minors, but adults. This isn't just about me. It's much larger.''

With the final ruling in, Demos said she was not likely to take up any more political crusades. Instead, she said, she would return to the worries that consume teen-dom: When she can snowboard again, whether she really wants to be a dental hygienist when she grows up, and when all the media attention will die down.

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