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Blood Transfusions

Matthew 12:7: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

The Society’s stance on blood transfusions is, like the 1914 teaching, a unique belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but with much more serious consequences. Blood transfusions are commonly used in medical procedures and are sometimes essential for the patient to have any prospect of surviving. A recent case in Australia highlights this, where hospital doctors had to apply to the Supreme Court to get permission to provide a blood transfusion for a child suffering leukemia who would die within weeks without a transfusion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bb-geM8ehk&feature=plcp).

Besides such life and death consequences, any baptized Jehovah’s Witness who receives a blood transfusion is liable to be disfellowshipped if unrepentant, even if the transfusion was needed to save their life (for example, in an emergency situation involving a car accident).

The policy is not confined to just baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses but Jehovah’s Witness parents are expected to apply the policy towards their own offspring, with the result that babies, young children, and youths have died as a result. The Watchtower Society has even publicly lauded Jehovah’s Witnesses youths who died as a result of refusing to have a blood transfusion as fine examples of putting God first (Awake! Magazine May 22, 1994).

Youths who put God first (blood transfusions) article

There is a lot of debate on the subject on the internet and in religious publications. Many former and current Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the policy needs reforming (for example, here is a pro-JW website calling for reform http://www.ajwrb.org/).  Many JW’s are also confused by inconsistency in the policy over the years, and recent changes that now allow certain blood fractions to be transfused. Because deaths have occurred over strictly complying with the policy it is understandably a very serious and personal matter.

Recently in the English newspaper The Times, well known English author Ian McEwan stated that “the Jehovah’s Witness case where parents would allow their children to die because of some theological line invented in 1945 in Brooklyn by some committee at their watchtower seems utterly perverse and inhumane.”

Despite the natural abhorrence that most people, such as Ian McEwan, feel about religious teachings that harm children, some of the highest Courts in the world have upheld Jehovah’s Witnesses right to refuse blood transfusions, even at the cost of the witness’s life. The Courts have upheld this even for minors (persons under 20), where the Court has been convinced that the decision to refuse the blood transfusion is fully informed and is genuinely their own decision. As a result of these legal victories, the medical profession has had to make advances in bloodless surgical procedures, with often impressive results. The Watchtower Society is very proud of this record and many Jehovah’s Witnesses cite this as evidence that their blood transfusion policy is right. However, it’s important to remember that the Courts are only concerned with legal issues and judgments involving the application of secular law. It is not their concern to determine scriptural truth and the correct application of Christian laws and principles.  To illustrate this, some of the highest Courts have stated that homosexuals have the right to marry or adopt children, yet it is generally acknowledged that these things are entirely unacceptable according to the Bible.

The Watchtower Society’s policy on strictly forbidding blood transfusions is principally because they believe the injunction to ‘abstain from blood’ in Acts 15:28, 29 must be understood to apply to absolutely every conceivable way of absorbing blood into the human body, no matter whether it is eaten or drunk or transfused.  The Society has, however, compromised to some extent in recent times by stating that certain blood fractions are ok to take while other fractions are not – despite the glaring hypocrisy that the blood from which those fractions are taken is human donated blood! The Watchtower Society has also said that it is wrong for a Jehovah’s Witness to keep their own blood in storage in the event a future transfusion of it is needed but in some situations it is acceptable for a Jehovah’s Witness to have their blood removed, infused with certain medicines, then transfused back into themselves.

These changes to the rules have not only caused confusion among Jehovah’s Witnesses but have intensified accusations against the Society that its policy is not only unscriptural but has descended into a kind of gnat-squeezing, camel-gulping, hypocritical policy that is absurd. The analogy is made that the policy is now similar to saying that you cannot eat an apple, but apple juice, apple sauce and apple pie are ok to eat.

It is clear that the ‘eating’ (in the natural sense but including drinking like soup) of blood as food is a crucial element of the Bible’s prohibition against blood, because every relevant scripture, from Genesis 9, Leviticus 17, and Acts 15, includes this aspect. I would qualify that by saying that the real question is not so much whether the blood is ‘food’ as much as whether the blood is ‘eaten’ (as in chewed in the mouth and swallowed, or drunk).

However, it remains that in all these scriptural examples there is a death that has occurred. The animal has given up its life for the blood to become available to eat. What must be kept in mind is that always in scripture the blood is merely a symbol of the life that has been lost or sacrificed. This is why God, as the giver of life, asks for the blood back, to be poured out. It is a mark of respect to him as the source of life, the soul, as figuratively represented by the blood.

This might lead us to rank the elements that must exist for the prohibition to apply in the following order:

1. eaten
2. death of the blood giver.

Any situation where element 1 exists, ie, the ‘eating’ of blood, either as liquid (eg, African tribesman) or cooked (eg, black pudding), or where the flesh of any unbled animal is eaten, is clearly a breach of the prohibition at Acts 15.

Since blood transfusions lack element 1, ie, eating of blood, they cannot be a breach of the prohibition. The word ‘abstain’ must be read in the historical and scriptural context it appears, to mean ‘eaten’ in the natural sense.

And bringing in the point about ‘eating’ the blood rather than it being just ‘food’, even if the Society succeeded in providing medical, scientific or other evidence that many detractors have called for it to produce to prove that taking blood intravenously means the blood is ‘food’, that still wouldn’t make the Watchtower Society right, because the blood has not been ‘eaten.’

But the Society’s position is even worse because of the lack of element 2, ie, the blood donor has not given up their life in giving the blood, which is a fundamental principle found in all the scriptural examples.

The Society offers two defenses to all this: firstly, that a blood transfusion is nutrition to the body the same as eating blood is. This is patently a false idea, easily disproven by the fact that if a person deliberately starved themselves to death, it would not make the slightest difference to how long they survived if they had regular blood transfusions. They would still starve to death in the same amount of time with blood transfusions. Blood is not a nutrient like food, it is merely a carrier of nutrients to the body. The Society no longer emphasizes this line of reasoning because it is so easily challenged.

Instead, the predominant defense is strict reliance on the word “abstain” in Acts 15:21. The following illustration is used by the Watchtower Society:

“Consider a man who is told by his doctor that he must abstain from alcohol. Would he be obedient if he quit drinking alcohol but had it put directly into his veins?” Reasoning from the Scriptures p.73

This analogy is flawed. Although an alcoholic is advised not to drink alcohol, it would not prevent a doctor administering alcohol based medicine in case of a medical emergency. Furthermore, when blood is introduced directly into the veins as a transfusion, it circulates and functions as blood. Similarly, when a person orally ingests alcohol it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Alcohol is not broken down by the stomach and so drinking alcohol is the same as injecting it directly. On the other hand, orally eaten blood when digested does not enter the circulation as blood, but is broken down into simple components.

To show how fallacious the illustration is, consider the Reasoning book statement put another way: “Consider a man who is told by his doctor that he must abstain from meat. Would he be obedient if he quit eating meat but accepted a kidney transplant?”

A blood transfusion is actually a cellular organ transplant. Organ transplants are permitted by the Watchtower Society.  Many Jehovah’s Witnesses are unaware that for decades organ transplants, as were child vaccinations, were condemned by the Society as unscriptural and evil! How many Jehovah’s Witnesses died because of those now rejected policies? Is it moral for the Watchtower leadership to insist on policies and interpretations that result in actual deaths when those views may one day change, as have the policies on organ transplants and vaccinations? Wouldn’t that render such an organisation blood guilty?

Forbidding blood transfusions to the point that even babes and children die is an example of extreme religious legalism that ignores the important lessons and principles given by Jesus in counteracting the Pharisees fanatical and insensible adherence to the letter of the law.  In fact, Jesus specifically taught and demonstrated that acts of mercy, such as saving a life, are more important than legalistic obedience to regulation:

Matthew 12:7 “However, if you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones.”

Matthew 12:11 “Who will be the man among you that has one sheep and, if this falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not get hold of it and lift it out? All considered, of how much more worth is a man than a sheep!”

Mark 3:4-5 “Next he said to them: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do a good deed or to do a bad deed, to save or to kill a soul?” But they kept silent. And after looking around upon them with indignation, being thoroughly grieved at the insensibility of their hearts, he said to the man: “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” – see also Luke 6:7-10

“Matthew 12:1-4, NW: “At that season Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath. His disciples got hungry and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. At seeing this the Pharisees said to him: ‘Look! your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them: ‘Have you not read what David did when he and the men with him got hungry? How he entered into the house of God and they ate the loaves of presentation, food it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests only?'” In these verses and in the ones following Jesus was calling attention to acts of mercy on the sabbath day, that it was perfectly legitimate to render a show of mercy to one who is in need even though it was the sabbath, and that there is, in effect, no violation of the sabbath by such course of action. He had no rebuke for David’s course.” – see alsoMark 2:23-26″ Watchtower 1952 Sep 15 p.575

It is interesting to note that contemporary Jews permit blood transfusions. Strict Orthodox Jews soak meat in water, salt it and then drain it in order to draw out all the blood out of adherence to the prohibitions on eating blood in the Pentateuch, yet no Jewish groups forbid blood transfusions.  Jewish kosher probations are waived for life-saving medical use. Sustaining life overrules the Mosaic Law and Jewish tradition, a principle known as ‘pikuach nefesh’.

For these reasons blood transfusions cannot be an offence against Acts 15: 28 & 29. At the worst it should be a conscience matter, and only for informed, baptised Christians since it can involve life and death situations. The prohibition should particularly never apply to babies and unbaptized children, as they are not under Christian law. The prohibition against blood at Acts 15 was given to the ‘brothers’ in the congregations, ie, mature, baptized Christians (Acts 15:23, 32, 33). Jehovah is not a God who would ever expect a child’s life to be sacrificed in exchange for fanatical adherence to a religious devotion, an idea which he said had “never come up into his heart” – Jeremiah 32:5. Jesus said that God wants “mercy, not sacrifice.”  We could never imagine Jesus, who loved little children, condoning the Watchtower’s extreme stance on life-saving blood transfusion that has resulted in even little infants and children dying. Rather, like the fanatical ones of his own time, we can only imagine Jesus shaking his head at the “insensibility” of the Watchtower on this matter.

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