Witnesses, blood and spiritual complications

By Joel P. Engardiowriter, documentary filmmaker Blood transfusions and Jehovah’s Witnesses make dramatic stories. Life and death determined by religious … Continued

By Joel P. Engardio
writer, documentary filmmaker

Blood transfusions and Jehovah’s Witnesses make dramatic stories. Life and death determined by religious faith was on trial last year in Canada where the Supreme Court ruled that blood can be forced on children of Jehovah’s Witnesses while some “mature minors” can decide their own medical fate. Russia’s high court was much less accommodating. It said the belief against blood is a danger to society that warrants a ban of the religion. In the United States, a young Jehovah’s Witness mother who refused a potentially life-saving lung transplant because it would likely require a blood transfusion was front page news in the Washington Post this week.

The twist in Maribel Perez’s story, featured in Wednesday’s editions of The Washington Post, is that she changed her mind. She is now willing to have the operation with blood because she feared leaving her two elementary school-age children motherless. Her Jehovah’s Witness congregation has reportedly shunned her.

The drama in these stories is inherent because the religious objection to blood only amplifies stakes that are high to begin with — people sick enough to need organ transplants can still die even with the blood transfusion. So Jehovah’s Witnesses are left with what appear to be impossible choices: Say no to blood and risk orphaning your children, consent to a procedure that might not work and leave family behind anyway, have a successful operation with blood but face the shame of disobeying your God and alienation from family and friends still in the faith.

Yet the issue of Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood is not always that clear-cut. I made the PBS documentary KNOCKING, which featured a 23-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who needed a liver transplant. Seth Thomas wanted to abide by his religious conviction that blood is sacred – a life force that Jesus shed to absolve humankind’s sin – and was not to be eaten, as the Bible commanded (extended to transfusions today). So Seth refused any surgery that would require blood. But Seth still wanted to live. He thought of the girlfriend he wanted to marry and a full life ahead. Seth didn’t rely on prayer alone; he also put hope in medical technology, searching for hospitals willing to give him a liver transplant without transfusing blood.

Every medical center Seth contacted in his home state of Texas turned him down, but the University of Southern California agreed to take his case (it was once said liver transplants could never be done without blood and now they are). USC has a transfusion-free surgery program that specializes in “bloodless” procedures and has been working with Jehovah’s Witness patients for years to develop better medical technology in every area from knee replacements to heart surgery and organ transplants. The hospital even applies the “bloodless” techniques to the general population for cleaner, safer operations that reduce infection risk and lower cost, saving blood transfusions only for when they are absolutely necessary. That’s the kind of treatment I would personally want, as someone who isn’t one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Nearly 200 hospitals in the United States have some sort of “bloodless” program, and the concept is catching on. Even the U.S. military is interested. The Department of Defense is paying Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey nearly $5 million to train military doctors how to perform “bloodless” surgery.

Note “bloodless” is in quotes. Many of the technologies and medicines used to reduce or replace blood contain traces of blood in the manufacturing process. An organ transplant will always have residual blood.

My mother is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the advance medical directive she and all Jehovah’s Witnesses are asked to fill out contains a menu of choices. They can choose or decline a number of treatment options that have some sort of blood fraction but fall short of an all-out whole blood transfusion. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses, like my mom, pick options tailored to their personal conscience. Some are absolutists who won’t take anything linked to blood. And not all Jehovah’s Witnesses will accept an organ transplant, which was not allowed until 1980. But Jehovah’s Witnesses who do take transplants say their intention is to get the organ, not the residual blood that comes with it.

A doctor I interviewed for KNOCKING treats many Jehovah’s Witnesses but said he sees a “logical disconnect” with the religion’s stated beliefs and their nuanced approach to blood: whether it was a fraction of blood or a whole bag of transfused blood, it was still blood. I agree. However, where my mom is concerned, I like the idea that she doesn’t have to follow a one-size-fits-all blood policy dictated by her religion. Still, if some nuance is allowed, I wonder why the religion bothers to adhere to a no-blood theology in the first place — or at least make the leap that the Biblical ban on eating blood includes modern transfusions?

I suspect legal considerations weigh heavily on Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organized religion. While it may have been easy to “disfellowship” or excommunicate a member for taking blood years ago, the religion today would be open to devastating lawsuits if its members were forced to make certain medical decisions. High-ranking Jehovah’s Witnesses I interviewed for KNOCKING said no one is excommunicated now for taking blood, but a member who willfully chooses blood has voluntarily chosen to leave the faith. Which raises another nuance in the policy: Witness officials I interviewed said a member who takes a blood transfusion while in an “emotional state and under pressure” deserves “pastoral care and compassion.” They can remain a Witness as long as they don’t advocate that blood transfusions are good, that they would do it again and others should do it, too.

I can’t help but think about the young Jehovah’s Witness mother featured on the front page of the Washington Post. Whether through a hospital pioneering new technology or the increasingly nuanced approach Jehovah’s Witnesses take to blood, perhaps there is a way she can get her lung transplant while keeping her faith after all.

Joel P. Engardio directed the award-winning PBS documentary KNOCKING about Jehovah’s Witnesses. His essays have been broadcast on NPR and appeared in USA Today.

  • APaganplace

    I think this whole kind of mess is about *textual absolutism* more than how sincere anyone is in their interpretation of it: what’s really at issue here is that whether you believe it’s your right to deny children medical treatment or ‘exorcise’ them, by whatever means… Especially while trying to tell other adults when they can even have sex,never mind keep their kids… Is that…In America, children and young adults are not *property,* no matter how you read your Bible. While some try to use the government and other pressures to compel others about their own sexual and reproductive lives, some of these same people treat Americans (and women) as property subject to their books when said young people enjoy very dubious legal rights of their own. Being born claimed by Catholics does not mean that the Church had any right to override my own personal integrity. The problem, here, is *certain ambiguity* when absolutes compete. I can respect that you revere blood for whatever reasons (Can’t say I *understand* them from your references, but I can respect that.) I can *certainly* be very behind finding a way in which you can be comfortable with medical procedures. In my own belief system, sharing blood or body parts is actually non-trivial. It’s very meaningful. It’s also not something that calls for saying, “I own my child, I say this is forbidden, therefore, my high-school-age child has to suffer and die cause I say so. ” One thing’s for sure, this issue is one some who think children are property run afoul of certain vaguenesses about what we call human rights when it comes up. Yes, there are grey areas. The right of someone to wave a Bible and say ‘This book says I own my kid, and also says somehow that transfusions are wrong…’ Is not, to me, a grey area. Convincing kids who don’t have a right to *leave* that they have to say they *want* to die…Don’t know if that’s grey so much as ‘swirly and complicated bound to get muddier with more stirring.’ The ‘rights of minors’ are never really spelled out, is the problem. But they aren’t property.

  • YEAL9

    “The twist in Maribel Perez’s story, featured in Wednesday’s editions of The Washington Post, is that she changed her mind. She is now willing to have the operation with blood because she feared leaving her two elementary school-age children motherless. Her Jehovah’s Witness congregation has reportedly shunned her.”How very “Christian” of her congregation!!!!Then we have this: from answers.com”Jehovah’s Witness Member of an international religious movement founded in Pittsburgh, Pa., by Charles T. Russell in 1872. The movement was originally known as the International Bible Students Association, but its name was changed by Russell’s successor, Joseph Franklin Rutherford (1869 – 1942). The Witnesses are a millennialist group whose beliefs are based primarily on the apocalyptic sections of the Bible, notably Daniel and the Book of Revelation. They refuse to perform military service or salute the flag, actions which have brought them into direct conflict with governments around the world. They are famous for their door-to-door evangelizing and for refusing blood transfusions; they believe there is scriptural justification for all their actions and beliefs. Their goal is the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, and they hold that Jesus — who is believed to be God’s first creation rather than one person in a trinity — is God’s agent in this plan. Their national headquarters is in Brooklyn, N.Y.; their major publications, the Watchtower and Awake!, are published in about 80 languages.”You have to wonder if Charles T. Russell and Joseph Smith were related.Then there are these following quotes about the Book of Revelation i.e. the JW’s operating manual:From Wikipedia:”Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation “the insanest of all books”.[69]Thomas Jefferson omitted it along with most of the Biblical canon, from the Jefferson Bible, and wrote that at one time, he considered it as “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” [70]

  • APaganplace

    “”"Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation “the insanest of all books”.[69]“”It’s gotta be on the short list anyway. :)

  • APaganplace

    Though, I suppose, in an extremely-repressed environment, Yeal, that book may be presumed to be *so* crazy that it must contain a certain “Insoothiness.” Actually, if you read it like someone from California having a bad acid trip, it’s a bit more amusing. Also clearly intended at the time to refer to a bunch of stuff that already fell down. :)

  • APaganplace

    And, before you’re off and running with that, Yeal, there’s a few kinds of crazy: Among them are crazy-*kind,* crazy-*random* crazy-*stern,* and crazy-*mean.*I prefer the former end of that spectrum. :)

  • APaganplace

    Side-topics aside, what this is *really* about is that we’ve never gotten around to define the rights of minors, only occasionally to regulate them. It’s another holdover *from* the old Biblical idea that women and children and ‘infidels’ actually *are property.*Of course it gets thorny.

  • WmarkW

    This is the societal cost of religion — doctors who should be developing treatments to prolong all our lives or improve health among poor people, are instead developing techniques to get around the objections of a small number of people who believe in a faith that’s demonstrably false.

  • RaoTayi

    Yet again we see the rank stupidity of religious beliefs. Instead of trying to expand the ways to reduce suffering and finding cures, we see these doctors and hospitals wasting resource to pander to these ignoramuses. Which again is born out of the stupidity of the society to hold religious beliefs as befitting respect instead of in ridicule. Most of all the appalling thing is the bigotry of the church goers in ostracizing the poor woman, who finally came to her senses for the sake of her children. So these pious bigots could not respect that decision, no no no. Instead they have to punish her. This we are supposed to respect? Look at these bigots they demand that we show respect to their superstition, ignorance and downright bigotry, but when it is their turn to show some decency and respect to others choices and beliefs they say to us “POX ON YOU”. This whole thing nauseating.

  • lepidopteryx

    Thorny is an understatement.On the one hand, while children aren’t property, they also cannot give or withold legal consent for medical treatment – the right to consent or refuse lies with their parents until they are of legal age. If we allow doctors to ignore the parents’ refusal of blood and transfuse without consent, then how far do we carry that? It would be nice if there was a one-size-fit-all answer for such issues, but there just isn’t.

  • elderbetty

    I a world of morals the very fact that a parent would deny a child what they need to be healthy would disqualify them from having any say over that childs medical care!! jehovah witnesses are proof America is the most depraved country on planet earth.

  • PSolus

    This is what comes of mixing superstition and reality.Real world problems cannot be solved using superstitious beliefs and thinking.

  • lorah12

    The complications that can arise from blood transfusions are well documented. The reasoning used by the writer questioning why Jehovah’s Witnesses accept organ transplants where trace amount of blood can be received is ignorant. Okay so I guess that since all traces of blood cannot be removed from our food, we should all eat unbled meat. The bible principle that supports the stand taken by Jehovah’s witnesses is found in the bible at Genesis 9:4,and Acts 15:28,29. Those who do not believe in religion/bible, have the right to feel that way; but attacking someone because they have faith in God, is the same as attacking someone for putting faith in man’s ability to solve everything….yeah that’s working out well.

  • WT1914

    Blood transfusion ban is just man-made dogma.

  • ConcernedMom4kids

    “Knocking” is generally a well presented look at Jehovahs Witnesses. They have been a champion of freedom of religion for many years and I admire their fortitude in continuing the fight wherever religious liberty is threatened. However within their own ranks such freedom and liberty is not permitted and rigorously discouraged with a series of punishments ending in disfellowshipment and shunning.It is this serious contradiction and hypocrisy that “Knocking” fails to address which reduces the program to a Watchtower Society infomercial. Such uncritical bias is unfortunate, bringing the program into the realms of an apologists platform and thereby losing most of its credibility on the way.

  • ThisIsJoe

    Watchtower Society often sites a scripture saying “abstain” from blood but ignores Christ saying at Matthew 12:7 that God wants Mercy not Sacrifice; besides which 1 Samuel 14:31-35 shows God forgave Saul’s men who ate unBLED meat to stay alive. The Governing Body men over the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses are fully aware of these scriptures but don’t emphasize them to regular JWs. Also, let the readers be informed that Watchtower’s use of “disfellowshipping” JWs who do take emergency whole blood transfusions is harsh shunning that means loss of all normal family ties, destruction of innumerable families, and sometimes the suicides of shunned persons pushed into the deepest pits of depression. Shame on the Watchtower’s Governing Body. Christ said the stones could if needed cry out, and indeed that’s what is happening — they are tombstones, an estimated 200,000 since 1945 scattered worldwide, far worse than the Jonestown and Waco massacres put together!

  • ThisIsJoe

    Watchtower Society often sites a scripture saying “abstain” from blood but ignores Christ saying at Matthew 12:7 that God wants Mercy not Sacrifice; besides which 1 Samuel 14:31-35 shows God forgave Saul’s men who ate unBLED meat to stay alive. The Governing Body men over the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses are fully aware of these scriptures but don’t emphasize them to regular JWs. Also, let the readers be informed that Watchtower’s use of “disfellowshipping” JWs who do take emergency whole blood transfusions is harsh shunning that means loss of all normal family ties, destruction of innumerable families, and sometimes the suicides of shunned persons pushed into the deepest pits of depression. Shame on the Watchtower’s Governing Body. Christ said the stones could if needed cry out, and indeed that’s what is happening — they are tombstones, an estimated 200,000 since 1945 scattered worldwide, far worse than the Jonestown and Waco massacres put together!

  • Rudy8

    WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES REFERENCES by Joe?Simple- Joel P. EngardioNOW he is an outspoken Gay activist.He is NOT disfellowshipped (excommunicated,shunned,kicked out,treated as dead)or less severe even considered an ‘unapproved associate’(like the thousands of gay and lesbian JW kids who have been disfellowshipped.The fundy Watchtower society USES him to promote direct & star in their PBS knocking promotional flick and also uses him as a major spokesman for 4 other outlets on the web

  • megthepearl

    Traces of ‘insidental’ blood has always been OK. Even in the original Christian Congregation. (They could buy meat from non Christian markets after making reasonable inquiry as to how the animal was slaughtered, and then told to not make any further inquiry.) Plus theres small amounts of blood no matter how well drained meat is.)Fractions, though small in amounts, are not ‘insidental’. So what I do is the old equation: “Whole Blood” minus “whatever” is still “Whole Blood.”For instance, even in large volume, the clotting facter has always been allowed because Whole Blood minus clotting factor is still whole blood. (and it has no dna.)So we’re not really flip flopping. It’s the old equation we’ve always used.Judge a tree by the appearance of its ‘own’ leaves. Please request our brochure “How Can Blood Save Your Life?”

  • LisaLove1

    JW compromise the *abstain from blood* dogma and use 80% of the unit bag of donated blood to utilize for blood *fractions* They do not back donate themselves.Simple question…..yes or no?

  • Rudy8

    When my Jehovah’s Witness mother died in 1992 I did not know she had passed away until it came up in the social security database in 1993.I was completely cut off and treated as DEAD all because I was disfellowshipped for leaving JW and becoming a born again Christian.I was not allowed to comfort my own mother in her last days,even though I was the family anchor,with the most money,most energy who always took care of my clan.There is NO other group on earth not the the Taliban,not the USA prison system,not even the other notorious cults… nobody is as cruel as the JW cult!Think about it…

  • Gayle777

    “High-ranking Jehovah’s Witnesses I interviewed for KNOCKING said no one is excommunicated ‘now’ (in the past there were thousands excommunicated, and WTS has no apology for those) for taking blood, but a member who ‘willfully chooses’ blood has voluntarily chosen to leave the faith.”No one “willfully chooses” blood. People are not vampires just ‘wanting’ to take blood, for bloody sake. With their desire to live, they have not ‘voluntarily chosen’ to leave their God, family and friends.There is such lack of true LOVE for these poor souls at an extremely difficult time by the JW Governing Body leadership!

  • TLJ1

    The article on Maribel was very misleading, whether intentionally or not. Not only is Maribel Perez not a Jehovah’s Witness, the article skirted around the real issue – she is without health insurance and cannot pay what it really costs for her care.The real cost and normal charge to a insurance company for a pre-surgical care, the lung transplant, and follow-on care is upwards of $500,000.If Maribel had insurance, she could have gotten the surgery done without blood if that was her choice.Thus, Post article on Maribel sensationalized and misrepresented what is a very common problem, people with serious health problems but no way to pay for their care.

  • megthepearl

    To the Lisa Love comment below. Yes or No. YES. Fractions have no dna attached and can just as easily be taken from animal blood, and often is. Bovine If everyone in the world was a Jehovah’s Witness, there would be no war. Much less blood shed in general.

  • rotcivvic90

    If it is true that Mr. Joel P. Engardio was a former member and the Watchtower operatives have not disfellowshipped him for already exposing them to the public to “think” about their policy of “No Blood,” it is because they would not want Mr. Engardio to become a “Michael Moore.” They know that if he presented on film their policy at a high level of transparency, their Watchtower operations would dramatically shrink to a stand still; the conscientiousness of the public would be raised preponderantly, forcing them to consider revoking the “No Blood” policy. I call on to Mr. Engardio, to do just that. Make a film that demands transparency and accountability. It would be of great service to the rank and file who are under the Watchtower operatives’ influence of control. The rank and file deserve to be free, at last!From Los Angeles

  • WT1914

    A POEM ABOUT CHILD ABUSE IN Suffer the little childrenFor children are so preciousWe value all our childrenFrom the moment of their birthYet the Watchtower’s actionsTheir teaching gives no protectionFor these men are their brothersSo they are able to carry onFor the Watchtower’s rules demandWhile the Watchtower turns away

Read More Articles

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

shutterstock_186686495
The End of Surveillance for New York Muslims — For Now

How American Muslims modeled the right response to systematic injustice.