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 Jehovah's Witnesses' (WTS) opposition to blood transfusions

Part 1: Impacts of the WTS policy.
Webmaster's comments. Two cases.

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Witness' beliefs and teachings about blood:

As explained in a companion essay, the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination urges its members to refuse to accept blood transfusions and to not allow them to be given to their children.

This essay describes a few randomly seleted instances involving refusals to accept blood transfusions. They are intended to indicate the nature of the conflict, and are not a complete list.

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Some results of refusals to accept transfusions:

Local Child Protective Services often intrude on parents' rights and take into care sick Jehovah's Witness children whose health or life is threatened by the refusal to allow a blood transfusion. According to their denomination's beliefs, an adult Jehovah's Witness who willingly accepts a blood transfusion is considered to be committing a sin and might forfeit his or her eternal life. Many non-Witness sources imply that the WTS teaches that all who have had a transfusion (even if given against their will or at an age or situation when they cannot give informed consent) will automatically lose their promise of eternal life. That is an error.

The 1997-FEB edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) contained a review of the book Blood on the Altar by David Reed. The reviewer wrote that if the information in the book is true, then the Witness policy on blood transfusions has "led thousands to die needlessly." 1 Unfortunately, neither JAMA nor the book reviewer reviewed the accuracy of this data.

The Watch Tower Society (WTS) periodical Awake once showed pictures of some Jehovah's Witnesses children who followed the ban on blood transfusions and died. 2 It is, of course, unknown how many would still have died even if they did have a transfusion. One particularly sad case occurred in the UK when a woman bled to death after giving birth to her second child. 3

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Estimates of maternal death rates among pregnant women:

We have found two reports to date: one from the U.S. and the other from the UK:

  • Dr. Carl J. Saphier led a study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY, of the maternal death rate among Jehovah's Witnesses. The report indicates a death rate of 521 deaths per 100,000 live births--a rate nearly 44 times higher than that among the general US population. The precision of that number is in doubt because it was based on only two deaths! Sr. Saphier said

    "The findings imply that special care is required for women who are Jehovah's Witnesses, including special counseling prior to delivery, methods of minimizing the blood loss at delivery, and fast treatment for any hemorrhage." 4

  • A 2004-SEP UK report, the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths (CEMD) stated that:

"... the very high risk of mortality in women who refuse blood transfusion was highlighted. 5 The death rate in this group was 1 per 1,000 maternities compared with an expected incidence of fewer than 1 per 100,000 maternities. 6

Computing the average of these two reports, the maternal death rate:

  • among those refusing blood transfusions is about 310 per 100.000 births.
  • among the general population is about 6 per 100,000 births.
  • is about 70 times greater for those who refuse blood transfusions.

Marvin Shilmer posted the following calculation to the Jehovahs-Witness.com discussion forum:

"Assuming an annual birth rate of 20 per 1,000, and based on the Watchtower organization's annual statistics, over the period of 1995 through 2006 there were at least 1,455,000 births among Jehovah's Witnesses. Assuming these women presented themselves as refusing blood, this translates into 1,455 deaths during this period." 6

If all had accepted transfusions when needed, only 21 might have died. The Jehovah's Witness' policy on blood transfusions might thus have caused on the order of 10 preventable deaths a month, 120 a year, within their organization.

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Webmaster's comments: (Bias alert)

WARNING: The following opinions are probably biased by the webmaster's Agnostic religious beliefs and Humanistic world view:

There are many thousands of Christian faith groups in the world. To our knowledge, the Watchtower Society is the only one that strongly recommends that their members refuse blood transfusions. From our experience, theologians from all faith groups are intelligent, sincere, devout, careful students of the Bible. One might logically question what the chances are for the Jehovah's Witness to have the correct beliefs, and all the other denominations being in error.

The gap between the maternal death rates in the American and UK medical system (on the order of 12 times) is a shocking indicator of the depraved indifference of politicians and others in the provision of medical care to American women. In the U.S., many poor women's first pre-natal contact with a physician occurs during labor. Hopefully, when Obamacare is fully implemented this imbalance should largely be overcome.

If the Watchtower Society is wrong, and the other 1,500 Christian groups in the U.S. are correct, then there is no prohibition of blood transfusions mentioned in the biblical text. The Bible verses quoted by the WTS actually seem to relate only to diet and eating. Large numbers of women may well be dying needlessly.

On the other hand, if the Watchtower Society is right, then these women are exchanging perhaps five decades of life on Earth in exchange for assurance that they will not be annihilated when they die. That is a great bargain, since most Christians believe that the afterlife is forever.

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A 1998 case in California:

An unusual court case involving a Witness and a blood transfusion occurred in Pomona, CA. Keith Cook, a drunken driver, had rammed his pickup truck into a stationary car, pushing it into a 55 year old woman, Jadine Russell who was standing by the side of the road. Being a Jehovah's Witness, she refused a blood transfusion, and later died in hospital. Cook was found not guilty on his original murder charge, but was convicted of manslaughter. Prosecutors said Cook was responsible for the death because he caused the injuries. His lawyers argued that the immediate cause of Russell's death was her refusal of a blood transfusion.7

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A 2002 case in Alberta, Canada which led to shunning:

In 2002-FEB, A 51 year old Jehovah's Witness father was faced with the news that his daughter was dying from acute myeloid leukemia -- an illness that is invariably fatal if not aggressively treated. He had to select one of two gut-wrenching alternatives -- both unacceptable:

  • To violate his religious training and authorize a series of blood transfusions for his daughter. This would give her a 40 to 50% chance of surviving, or

  • To stay true to his denomination's beliefs, refuse the transfusions, and almost certainly result in his daughter dying.

His name has been kept confidential in order to protect his daughter. He and the rest of his family lives in Alberta, Canada. However, the same events could have happened to any Jehovah's Witness family anywhere in the world.

To go against the teachings of his faith is not an easy decision for a Jehovah's Witness. Most of the parents friends, and all of the daughter's friends are Witnesses. They are now required to shun the father. He said:

"I was under tremendous pressure. Because, I knew that if I went against what the church taught, that I would be excommunicated and no Jehovah's witness would ever speak to me again, including my own family... When I made the decision with a clear conscience, I went into my daughter's hospital room. My whole family was there, and I told them about my decision, saying: 'No matter what happens with this case, I still love you, each and every one of you.' And their reply, each of them was: 'We hate you and we'll never speak to you again.'

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Book review in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association), 1997-FEB-5 Vol. 277, No.5, page 425
  2. Awake! magazine for 1994-MAY-22, Page 2. The issue's cover showed photographs of 26 Jehovah's Witness children who refused a blood transfusion and subsequently died.
  3. Michael Smith, "Jehovah's Witness Bleeds To Death After Giving Birth", The Daily Telegraph (London, UK), 1993-FEB-5. See: http://www.rickross.com/reference/Art64.html
  4. Charnicia E. Huggins, "Childbirth Death Risk High in Jehovah's Witnesses," Reuters, at: http://news.excite.com/news/r/011108/17/health-childbirth Based on a report in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2001;185:893-895.
  5. M Khadra, "A criterion audit of women's awareness of blood transfusion in pregnancy," 1Women & Children's Division, North Staffordshire Maternity Unit, Newcastle Road, Stoke on Trent, Staffs, ST4 6QG, UK, at: http://www.biomedcentral.com/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  6. Marvin Shilmer, "Deaths Due To Blood Refusal," Jehovahs-Witness.com, 2007-JAN-08, at: http://www.jehovahs-witness.com/
  7. "Bethany Hughes: Dad given OK to sue over death," Calgary Sun, 2006-FEB-27.

 

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How you got here:

Home > Christianity > Denominations Witnesses > Blood transfusions > here

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Copyright © 1996 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Initial version written on: 1996-SEP-29

Last updated on: 2014-JAN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson
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