Medics must stop the blood martyrs

The Argus, UK/June 10, 2008

Nine years ago former Jehovah's Witness Rachel Underhill was forced to refuse a lifesaving blood transfusion while giving birth to her twins. Rachel and her daughters Kira and Zoe survived to tell the tale - and left the faith a few years later. Now she is calling for a change in the law to allow doctors to perform blood transfusions, even against the wishes of the patient or their family.

When Rachel Underhill saw media reports about yet another Jehovah's Witness who lay dying in hospital, the bitter memories came flooding back.

John Edwards, 58, from London, needs a blood transfusion after a hit and run accident last week but his wife Sheila insists he would not want the life-saving procedure, which is against their religious beliefs.

As a result the couple's sons, who are not Jehovah's Witnesses, could have to watch their father die.

It was an all too familiar situation for Rachel Underhill who walked away from the faith after 30 years.

The 33-year-old company director now dedicates her spare time to helping former members of the religion and has set up a website to provide support to former Witnesses. advertisement

Seven years ago Rachel's case made headlines in The Argus when she rejected a blood transfusion during a Caesarean section.

Rachel, of Telscombe Cliffs, later revealed the decision was taken out of her hands by the Jehovah's Witness hospital liaison committee.

She now believes the law should be changed to stop the loss of more lives.

Rachel said: "I saw the story of John Edwards on the front page and it made me so angry.

"It's the same old story. Jehovah's Witnesses claim this is a rarity but it happens a lot more than people think.

"Jehovah's Witnesses need protecting from their religion and from themselves on this issue.

"I believe the law should be changed so hospitals automatically have the power to give Jehovah's Witnesses blood against their wishes."

Rachel's parents had been converted at the doorstep when she was three.

She went on to marry David, a fellow member, but doubts had begun to set in.

In 2004, Rachel eventually faked having an affair with an old friend, knowing she would be driven out of the religion.

She said: "Since that time people I have known for years just ignore me in the street. I was disowned by my family and friends but I am still so much happier now. I want to help others who are in my situation.

"Simply saying we can't change the law as we all have a right to choose our own medical treatment fails to take adequate consideration of the reasons why Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood.

"Theirs is not a truly free choice but one made under enormous pressure from church elders and the wider Witness community.

"Members know they will be shunned by all their Witness friends and family if they accept a transfusion. The Hospital Liaison Committee members - the Witnesses who liaise with medics when cases such as this arise - will be at their bedside reminding them of the prospect of eternal damnation should they fail to comply with their particular interpretation of the Bible.

"Because patients will have had these ideas so drummed into them, often since childhood, you have to ask whether or not they - or their next of kin - are actually of sound enough mind to make the decision to refuse a transfusion."

Jehovah's Witnesses believe the Bible forbids them from accepting blood, either in food or for medical reasons. There are about 125,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Britain and more than six million worldwide, including tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams and musicians Prince and Hank Marvin. Followers accept medical and surgical treatment but believe blood transfusion is forbidden by the Bible.

Rachel, who will marry Gerry D'Ambrosio in Lewes next year, added: "The Jehovah's Witnesses are completely out of touch with every other Christian denomination on this matter and simply refuse to accept they might be wrong.

"Worse still, they seem to treat as martyrs those who die refusing transfusions. The whole policy itself and the thinking and teaching around it is, quite simply, sick.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses have changed their policy on other matters in the past such as when they started to allow transplants due to the numbers needed.

"I beg them to change this one to prevent further loss of life."

In recent years, several Jehovah's Witnesses in the UK have died refusing a blood transfusion.

Beverley Matthews, 33, died in 2000, 22-year-old Jonathan Everett died in 2001, Angela Shipperley, 36, died in 2003 and 22-year-old Emma Gough died in November last year after losing blood giving birth to twins.

Courts have respected the wishes of adult Witnesses to refuse transfusions but doctors can attempt to have medical responsibility transferred from parents if they refuse treatment for their children.

Rachel's website, set up to support former Witnesses, has more than 100 members.

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