It is common medical knowledge that fertility treatments often result in multiple pregnancies, that multiple pregnancies often result in severely premature birth and that severely premature infants often require blood transfusions.
The behaviour of the British Columbia sextuplets'' parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses, thus represents something of a perfect ethical, religious and medical storm. They likely employed fertility treatments: "Hellin's Law" approximates the odds of naturally born sextuplets at around one in five billion. They refused the common remedy of "multifetal pregnancy reduction" - that is, aborting selected fetuses to improve the prospects of the others. And on religious grounds, they did not consent to the blood transfusions doctors deemed necessary.
Last week, it emerged that the B.C. government had temporarily taken custody of three of the four surviving sextuplets and administered transfusions to two of them. The unidentified parents, who have not spoken to the media, filed an affidavit claiming "immense sadness and grief"; meanwhile their religious group's Canadian chapter released a cryptic statement warning against "stereotypical assumptions regarding Jehovah's Witnesses."
The reaction to the church's handling of the sextuplets' story, though, might have less to do with stereotypes than with perceived contradictions in its official positions.
On fertility treatments, it is willing to look the other way. "The Bible doesn't comment on that subject at all and in Bible times there was no such technology," Witness spokesperson Mark Ruge told the Canadian Press in January. "On matters other than what's stipulated in the Bible, it's up to a person's conscience or their free choice."
On blood transfusions, it's quite a different matter. It's not that the Witnesses claim that blood transfusions were being administered "in Bible times"; rather, their beliefs rely on an apparently unique interpretation of a number of Bible verses.
Among those verses is one in Genesis in which (by the Witnesses' translation) God advises Noah that "[e]very moving animal that is alive may serve as food for YOU. As in the case of green vegetation, I do give it all to YOU. Only flesh with its soul - its blood - YOU must not eat."
In Leviticus, Jehovah offers the following guidelines to Moses: "As for any man of the sons of Israel or some alien resident who is residing as an alien in YOUR midst who in hunting catches a wild beast or a fowl that may be eaten, he must in that case pour its blood out and cover it with dust. For the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood by the soul in it. Consequently I said to the sons of Israel: 'YOU must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh, because the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood. Anyone eating it will be cut off.'"
And in Acts, James advised the apostles to "abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood."
At least one Biblical scholar is willing to opine that the passages have nothing to do with human blood at all. "The way the Jehovah's Witnesses read the biblical text is simply wrong," Professor Michael Duggan of Calgary's St. Mary's University College told the Canadian Press late last week.
"They speak about the life being in the blood, but the blood they are talking about is the blood of animals," he said, arguing that the verses are essentially lessons in basic food hygiene.
Whatever the biblical merits, the legal precedent is certainly there for the sextuplets' parents to be overruled.
In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a similar case - that of baby S.B., who was born four weeks premature and whose custody was temporarily awarded to the Toronto Children's Aid Society so that transfusions could be administered.
The judges conceded that the court's actions had deprived S.B.'s parents "of their right to decide which medical treatment should be administered to their infant and in so doing… infringed upon the parental 'liberty' protected in s. 7 of the Charter." But they decided that the infringement was "in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."
Justices Cory, Iacobucci and Major went further. "While the right to liberty embedded in s. 7… may very well permit parents to choose among equally effective types of medical treatment for their children, it does not include a parents' [sic] right to deny a child medical treatment that has been adjudged necessary by a medical professional and for which there is no legitimate alternative," they argued.
Such an alternative has emerged since, though its legitimacy is not uncontested. "Bloodless medicine" made headlines in 2005 in connection with a 14-year-old Jehovah's Witness from Vernon, B.C., who had been diagnosed with bone cancer. After a B.C. court ordered that she receive blood transfusions if they became necessary as part of her chemotherapy, she and her family petitioned an Ontario court to allow them to seek treatment at a New York hospital that offers transfusion-free treatment; a deal was eventually struck to allow that treatment.
With Witnesses old enough to understand the procedure often comparing blood transfusions to rape, the case of a 14-year-old arguably old enough to make up her own mind left public opinion split. But in the case of the Vancouver sextuplets, it appears to be considerably more one-sided - a recent Ipsos poll finding that 85% of British Columbians agree with the province's course of action.
Not all Witnesses are on board with their church's positions. "There is not uniform acceptance of the Watch Tower's blood doctrine among Jehovah’s Witnesses," the Associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood argues. "The Watch Tower organization promotes a myth when it argues that all Jehovah's Witnesses hold the same conviction on this point of doctrine."
With such reformers having failed to gain much of a foothold, though, it appears the church will go down fighting on the sextuplets.