Jehovah's Witnesses case heads to B.C. court

Vancouver Sun/April 1, 2007
By Douglas Todd

Vancouver -- A group of top academics as well as former Jehovah's Witnesses are raising stark warnings about the ethical ramifications of a Vancouver court case delving into whether blood transfusions should have been forced this year on at least two of the surviving premature sextuplets of Witness parents.

The critics of the Jehovah's Witnesses maintain the controversial case, which will be heard in B.C. Supreme Court today, reflects a pattern in which the religion fails to give adherents true freedom of choice about whether to accept life-saving transfusions.

While some former Witnesses are promising to picket outside the Vancouver courthouse, a group of scholars and legal specialists has written a statement declaring the Jehovah's Witness religion often pressures followers not to follow their individual conscience, including while deciding whether to accept transfusions.

The Watchtower Society, the legal and political body representing the six-million-member religion, portrays itself as a champion of religious freedom. Asked whether some Jehovah's Witnesses might feel coerced into refusing transfusions, Mark Ruge, Ontario-based spokesman for the Canadian Watchtower Society, said: "People can say whatever they want. I don't have the time to counter every accusation that's made."

The group of legal and religion specialists claims the society fights mainly for freedom for the religious organization -- not for freedom of conscience for individual Witnesses.

"We've all come together because of the number of people who are dying," says Juliet Guichon, who teaches health law and medical ethics at the University of Calgary.

In a recent public statement, Guichon joined two religion scholars and two former Jehovah's Witnesses with legal expertise in saying that the actions of the Watchtower Society "suggest that these leaders value doctrinal adherence more than they do the lives of their members."

The statement says senior medical officials confronted by Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for themselves or dependents are often unable to make sound ethical decisions because they're limited by their own "ignorance of the Watchtower's authoritarian rule." In other words, the statement claims, medical staff often don't realize individual Witnesses in medical emergencies may be overwhelmed by their fear of the religious and social repercussions of accepting a transfusion.

Today, lawyers for the B.C. government will face off against Watchtower Society lay lawyers over the province's decision in January to seize the four surviving sextuplets of Jehovah's Witnesses parents to force at least two to have blood transfusions.

Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that transfusions are forbidden by the Bible and adherents who voluntarily submit to accepting another person's human blood will suffer eternally in hell, a scriptural interpretation firmly rejected by other Christians and Jews. Their belief is based in large part on the Book of Acts 15: 28-29, in which the Revised Standard Version of the Bible says early Christians were taught: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: That you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled, and from fornication."

Lawyer Shane Brady, a Jehovah's Witness who works closely with the Watchtower Society, will argue in court that the government was wrong to do the emergency transfusions, in part because the Jehovah's Witness parents - whose identities are protected by court order - were denied a fair hearing before the apprehensions. In late December, Jehovah's Witness officials had written a letter cautioning a respected medical journal, Paediatrics and Child Health, against publishing an article by Guichon, the medical ethicist, and scholar Ian Mitchell, in which the authors questioned whether Jehovah's Witnesses always make truly "voluntary" decisions to reject transfusions.

The article, which was published in December, 2006, said there is evidence some Jehovah's Witnesses who have to make life-and-death decisions about transfusions for themselves, their children or family members in comas feel pressured into refusing blood because they don't want to be excommunicated from the religion.

"Coercion by actual or threatened shunning and excommunication can occur, and these factors may affect ... decision-making," says the academic article. The authors urged medical staff to make sure Jehovah's Witness patients who refuse blood are "acting without coercion."

Calgary architectural project manager Lawrence Hughes - the former Jehovah's Witness whose daughter, Bethany, died four years ago after a high-profile court battle over transfusions - said this week his life fell apart after he was shunned by the Jehovah's Witnesses when he initially allowed his cancer-ridden daughter to receive blood.

"When I signed the consent card (to allow his daughter to have blood), I didn't have anyone I could phone or talk to," Hughes said Friday. "I was disfellowshipped, kicked out. For many people who are excommunicated from the Witnesses, they lose their family, their friends and even their jobs, because they're often working for Witnesses."

Individual Jehovah's Witnesses can't speak out against their leaders for fear of losing everything, Hughes said. He felt a sense of subtle coercion each year when he, like all other Jehovah's Witnesses, was asked at his local Kingdom Hall to sign a card saying he refuses to accept blood transfusions for himself or those under his care. In a telephone interview, Guichon, the Calgary medical and legal expert, said she had tremendous sympathy for medical staff forced to make agonizing decisions about Jehovah's Witnesses who are dying for lack of blood.

To ensure the "authentic wishes" of Witnesses are met in hospitals, Guichon recommends medical officials and the courts only accept written "advance directives" from patients about refusing blood transfusions that are written in consultation with independent lawyers, not Watchtower officials.

Hughes agrees with the declarations Guichon and other scholars and legal experts made in their recent public statement, which says the Jehovah's Witnesses operate as an "authoritarian" religion that denies members the freedom to enjoy birthdays or Christmas, to attend the weddings or funerals of friends from other religions, join a political party, sing O Canada or seek most forms of higher education.

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