Ethicist says B.C. blood feud may save children and Jehovah's Witness parents

Canadian Press/February 1, 2007
By Scott Sutherland and Dirk Meissner

Victoria -- Four babies are struggling to live while a furious debate rages outside their hospital room about religious freedom and the power of the state to protect its citizens.

The four babies are the survivors of Vancouver sextuplets born last month almost three months premature. The parents are Jehovah's Witnesses who say they were horrified when the government seized custody of three of them and gave two blood transfusions, a procedure their religion forbids.

The B.C. government said it was obligated by law to temporarily seize the babies and administer the blood transfusions for health reasons against the wishes of their parents.

It's gut-wrenching, emotion-churning territory, all while the lives of four children hang in the balance, says Dr. Juliet Guichon, a medical ethicist at the University of Calgary who has monitored other clashes between Jehovah's Witnesses and government.

But the blood battle has the potential to end happily for the parents and their babies, she said.

Ironically, it all depends on how hard they fight the government.

"(It) could be seen as liberating because it takes the parents out of an impossible social situation," said Guichon.

The parents, who risk being shunned for life by the church because their children received the transfusions, can now plead they abided by the blood ban, but couldn't stop the government, she said.

"They can hold their head up among the Jehovah's Witness community and say, 'We protested, we went to court."'

The church and the parents know deep down the government will step in to save the children, even if it means blood transfusions, Guichon said.

Two medical experts helped advise the B.C. government to seize the children.

The Canadian Press has learned the government used the medical experts' advice to apply a section of the B.C. Child, Family and Community Service Act in taking custody of the children.

Section 30 allowed the government to act before the parents had a hearing, even though one was scheduled for later this month.

That section says the province's regional director of child welfare doesn't need a court order to move in as long as there are "reasonable grounds" to believe the child's health or safety is in immediate danger.

"(My wife) and I could not bear to be at the hospital while they were violating our little girl," the father of the sextuplets said in a court affidavit.

"We took our immense sadness and grief and tried to console each other in private."

The parents, who cannot be identified under a court order, have refused to speak to the media since their children were born in the first week of January almost three months premature.

Two of the sextuplets have since died and the rest have remained in hospital.

Last Friday, the government took custody of three of the remaining children and the blood transfusions were done. On Wednesday, the government withdrew the seizure order and the parents regained custody.

However, the act allows the province to move in once again if the circumstances are repeated.

The group that speaks for the Christian sect in Canada was inundated with calls Thursday from reporters wanting to know its response to the current controversy and seeking clarification on why Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions.

The release also said hospitals in Canada and the United States have treated extremely premature infants without blood transfusions by taking smaller samples of blood and accepting lower hemoglobin levels, among other things.

"It is important for the media and others to avoid making stereotypical assumptions regarding Jehovah's Witnesses," the statement said.

When asked why the sect refuses blood transfusions, spokesman Mark Ruge directed reporters to the Jehovah's Witnesses website.

On it, the group cites Bible passages to back up their belief. They include Leviticus 17:10-14, which reads in part:

"And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people."

The group also cites Acts 15:19-20, which states that God's followers must "abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."

But Jehovah's Witnesses are not barred from receiving organ transplants or from using blood products.

"Since the Bible makes no clear statement about the use of minor blood fractions or the immediate reinfusion of a patient's own blood during surgery, a medical process known as blood salvaging, the use of such treatments is a matter of personal choice," the site says.

Similarly, the faith has no problem with vaccines, some of which contain blood products.

A former Jehovah's Witness said the blood ban isn't always as strict as it appears.

"The word is symantics," said Kerry Louderback-Wood, of Fort Myers, Florida.

"A rose by another name smells sweeter. On one hand, we do not take blood in any form. On the other hand, 'Oh, you can have albumen, hemoglobin, by personal decision."'

Louderback-Wood, 38 and almost nine months pregnant, said her mother died of a heart attack after she refused a blood transfusion late in her life.

Earlier in her life, she accepted blood after hemorrhaging while giving birth to one of her children, she said.

Louderback-Wood said she remembers her mother telling her there were some things in life that should be kept from the church.

She said she quit being a Jehovah's Witness in her teens when she realized her university aspirations would be frowned on by the church.

She said in a later e-mail that Jehovah's Witness doctrine has shifted over the years. For example, she said in the 1960s, organ transplants weren't allowed, but they are now.

"What's sad is think of all the people who died or came down with polio/other diseases because of these bans that were later lifted.

"Why should the baby's die, when Jehovah may change his stance on blood in the future."

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