Judge orders teen continue transfusions

Calgary Herald/February 22, 2002
By Jason Van Rassel

Keeping a teen who needs blood transfusions alive outweighs her religious beliefs that forbid them, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The 16-year-old girl has a severe form of leukemia that requires transfusions as part of her treatment. But as a practising Jehovah's Witness, she adheres to the faith's proscription on receiving another person's blood.

"I acknowledge there is irreparable harm to her religious views by continuing treatment," Court of Queen's Bench Justice John Rooke said in denying the girl's application. "If she does not have the treatment being imposed, she will suffer irreparable harm."

Rooke pointed out the girl received two blood transfusions Tuesday at the Alberta Children's Hospital. "That harm has already taken place."

Lawyers for the girl, and the girl's mother were in court Wednesday to request a stay preventing doctors from administering transfusions against her will.

The girl's father is also a Jehovah's Witness, but after reviewing Scriptures now believes there's nothing wrong with blood transfusions and favours the treatments to keep his daughter alive. Child welfare officials stepped in Monday and gained temporary custody of the girl, who is undergoing chemotherapy at Children's Hospital.

"I'm very happy that my daughter has a chance to live," the girl's father said outside court.

The court heard the initial blood transfusions have markedly improved the girl's blood cell count, although nurses said she cried after the procedure.

The girl's lawyer, David Gnam, told court his client doesn't oppose chemotherapy and would go ahead with the treatment without transfusions.

Gnam had argued that ending the transfusions until the court hears an appeal of the custody order would not put the girl's life in danger.

He said his client is a mature minor who should be able to make her own decisions about her body -- an argument rejected by a provincial court judge, prompting Wednesday's appeal.

"At 161/2 years of age, (she) has the same well-developed religious beliefs and a concept of the inviolability of her body as an adult," Gnam said.

The prospect of more transfusions "will be devastating to her," he said outside court.

The teenager's mother later released a statement through Gnam's office.

"A blood transfusion has now been forced on my daughter," the mother said. "She is extremely upset that her views have not been respected.

"My daughter is a mature, intelligent girl. As a mother, I respect and support my daughter's choice to have this modified chemotherapy. All I want is for treatment to proceed and that my daughter can concentrate on her health, without interference with child welfare authorities."

The clinical head of pediatrics at Alberta Children's Hospital said in an interview that transfusions must go together with chemotherapy.

Dr. Brent Scott said top oncologists across North America who were consulted at the request of the girl's family only reinforced that notion. "If you want to live, there aren't alternatives."

Scott explained that healthy blood cells of patients with leukemia quickly turn into cancerous white cells if left untreated. Patients who don't receive multiple transfusions will lack the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, leading to organ failure.

Mark Kastner, a spokesman for Alberta Children's Services, said the province stepped in because officials were told the girl would die within days if she didn't get blood transfusions.

In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the state has the right to intervene in a parent's decision to stop a blood transfusion for a child based on religious beliefs.

Kastner said there have been three similar Alberta cases in the past two years, one in Edmonton and two in Calgary, in which the province stepped in to get temporary custody of children whose Jehovah's Witness parents wouldn't allow blood transfusions for religious reasons.

"In all of those cases we were awarded temporary custody so that we could allow medical intervention to occur."

The custody order appeal will be heard April 25 .

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