Biblical scholar says Jehovah's Witnesses wrong about blood transfusions

Canadian Press/February 2, 2007
By Dirk Meissner

Victoria -- A biblical scholar says he woke up Friday morning convinced he must wade into the blood battle in British Columbia involving four babies, their Jehovah's Witness parents, their church and the government.

Religious scholars have evaded the Jehovah's Witness blood issue because they didn't believe it had academic merit, but it's a story that must be told, said Prof. Michael Duggan, who teaches biblical literature at St. Mary's University College in Calgary.

Duggan said he's been in Alberta hospitals telling doctors his academic perspective on what the Bible says about blood and what many Jehovah's Witnesses believe the biblical scriptures say about blood.

But the message needs to be made more public, he said.

"The point that I make to the physicians is none of these texts has to do with human blood," said Duggan. "Certainly, they never had to do with transfusions."

"What they have to do with is the handling of animals that are slaughtered and the cooking and the procedures in cooking the meat so as to be free of contamination and disease."

Four babies fighting for their survival in a Vancouver hospital are at the centre of a debate about religious freedom and the power of the government to protect its citizens.

The babies are the surviving sextuplets born almost three months' premature in Vancouver last month. Two of the six babies have died.

The parents are Jehovah's Witnesses who say they were horrified when the government seized custody of three of their children and gave two of them blood transfusions, a procedure their religion forbids.

The B.C. government said it was obligated by law to temporarily seize the babies and administer the blood transfusions for health reasons against the wishes of their parents.

Last week, the government took custody of three of the remaining children so doctors could perform transfusions. The government withdrew a seizure order Wednesday and the parents regained custody.

But the government can legally move in again.

The group that speaks for Jehovah's Witnesses in Canada issued a statement that said hospitals in Canada and the United States have treated extremely premature infants without blood transfusions by taking smaller samples of blood and accepting lower hemoglobin levels, among other things.

Premature babies have extremely low blood volumes, are prone to anemia and require frequent blood tests.

When asked why the religious denomination refuses blood transfusions, spokesman Mark Ruge pointed to the Jehovah's Witnesses website.

On it, the organization cites Bible passages to back up the belief. They include Leviticus 17:10-14, which reads in part:

"And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people."

The group also cites Acts 15:19-20, which states that God's followers must "abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."

Duggan said the blood passages in the Hebrew Bible - Old Testament - often cited by Jehovah's Witnesses as their reasons to refuse blood transfusions are safe cooking instructions that date back to the 5th Century.

"That needs to be said," Duggan said. "The way the Jehovah's Witnesses read the biblical text is simply wrong."

The texts in the Hebrew Bible are mainly taken from Genesis 9:4-6 and from the book of Leviticus 17, he said.

"They speak about the life being in the blood, but the blood they are talking about is the blood of animals," Duggan said.

The case of the British Columbia sextuplets and other similar blood tranfusion battles in Alberta have him wanting to take on the Jehovah's Witnesses academically.

"I'm just concerned that people don't get victimized any more by this," Duggan said. "I mean this is life and death for people."

"It means I've got to write this article," he said. "As absurd as it seems to me to say this, I really do. I got up this morning realizing I have to do this."

A former Jehovah's Witness said the blood ban isn't always as strict as it appears.

Kerry Louderback-Wood, whose Jehovah's Witness mother died of a heart attack after refusing a blood transfusion late in her life, said the blood policy has shifted over the years.

Organ transplants weren't allowed in the 1960s, but they are now, she said.

Louderback-Wood, from Fort Myers, Florida, said the lives of the Vancouver babies should not be put at risk for a religious doctrine that has changed over the years and could likely change again.

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