Agraphia Medical Tragicomedy


This one’s gonna come back to bite me…

We had a very interesting talk from some Jehovah's Witnesses today as part of a health competency lecture series. For anyone not acquainted with Jehovah's Witnesses, they are best known to the medical community for their refusal of any form of blood transplants. They outlined the biblical basis for their belief today (IV blood transfusions are deemed equivalent to "eating blood", which is expressely forbidden in their version of the Bible), as well as the nuts and bolts of how this particular belief interfaces with modern medicine.

Interestingly enough, the ban against blood transfusions doesn't seem to be that big of a problem, in terms of treatment. I spent all afternoon researching it*, and while obviously more expensive, an entire cottage industry has sprung up around treating Witnesses with "Bloodless Medicine". This has even led to the development of blood substitutes that, though currently in their infancy, may one day help with nationwide shortages of blood.

Most Witnesses carry around a card that identifies themselves as such, and expressly grants the physician legal immunity in the event of their death secondary to blood loss. This is kind of a nice touch; though I may not agree with what they believe, if giving them a transfusion breaks their pact with God, who am I to force it upon them? I know I'd still have problems letting a patient die, but at least it would be on their terms.

I do, however, find myself troubled by one major aspect of Witness-dom... and that is the issue of pediatric care. I don't think that children should be subjected to the religious beliefs of their parents if it may cause them harm. Turns out this was established as legal precident in Prince v. Massachussetts (1944), in which a Jehovah's Witness was found guilty of breaking child labor laws. She was accused of forcing her child to distribute church pamphlets door-to-door (what Witnesses are best known for outside of the medical community).

Now, I am not a huge proponent of the culture of life. I believe that abortion should be legal, and I don't think that Terry Schaivo should have been kept "alive" even though half of her brain had atrophied to mush. But I strongly feel that if a child is brought in by ambulance to an ER after major trauma, they have a right to all the blood transfusions necessary to keep them alive - no matter what their parents believe.

Unfortunately, the Witnesses did not agree. They offered to take "all legal responsibility" for the death of the child, just as they do for themselves. That does not sit well with me. As far as I'm concerned, letting a kid die on the table when you could have helped them is murder... and damned** if I'm going to be a murderer because someone else thinks blood is a bad thing. Even if the law would be on my side if I let it happen.

Anyhow, I suppose this is all very intolerant of me. But I also know I couldn't live with myself if that child's death was on my hands.

*I do not have time for this!

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  1. ok first of all, the peds thing is a really difficult question— when do we draw the line?

    second of all, there is an official in our school—we’ll call him dr. nalan—who has specificially said that he would never follow the Witnesses wish to a no blood procedure—-now THAT is intolerant! =)

  2. The following website summarizes 300 U.S. court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah’s Witness Parents, including 100+ cases where the JW Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions for their dying children:


  3. A well written article, but a couple of points if I may –
    blood is expressly forbidden in any version of the bible, not just “their” version. The argument is about whether “abstaining” from blood includes transfusion or only ingesting. I would hazard a guess that an alcoholic that has IV alcohol is not abstinent. :0/
    Secondly, no Witness wants their child to die. A refusal of blood is not a refusal of treatment including various substitutes or blood volumisers.
    Thirdly, it is a common misconception that the lack of a blood transfusion kills patients. It is usually the trauma that kills them.

    You would not be guilty of “murder” by abiding by some one’s wishes. Are you guilty of murder by obeying an agreed DNR order?
    Issues around Jehovah’s Witnesses belief systems are emotive and often misconstrued. Would a Jew accept insulin from pigs? What if it is all that is available? Are you guilty of murder to abide by his wishes?

    If you keep in mind that Witnesses are parents too, that no parent wants their child to die, that every parent will do whatever they can to get the best care for their child, then you might understand that these decisions are not taken lightly and that there is a great deal of distress should a child (or anyone we love) die. The fact that Witnesses do not and will not consent to accept blood is a major faith issue, and any of you parents out there – think about how much you love your children, then remember that Witnesses love their children just as much. Refusing blood is not about “letting children die”. It is about faith.

    Don’t forget, it is written clearly in the bible, which every Witness knows is God inspired, that those who have died will rise again. All those Christians who take blood and disagree with Witnesses would agree with that scripture. Faith in the resurrection and the promises God makes is what helps them through these difficult decisions. And why not have the faith? Not a single word so far in the bible has proved untrue. Every prophecy made (1000s of them) so far has come true.

    And yes, I am a Witness, but I have tried to write this in a balanced way as the writer of the post has. I am just trying to offer some perspective and ask you (reader) to consider how you view DNRs, other faiths’ stances etc. But please, always remember, we love our children and do not want them to die. But we also want to obey God’s laws.
    Thanks for reading.

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