Fri May 6/05
Can I get a Witness?

One thing I'm not clear on in the case of the BC Jehovah's Witness cancer patient is why she and her family ended up in Toronto. In the Post today, a Long Island doctor who specializes in transfusion-free treatment says he was all set to take her on. Would the family have been stopped at the border had they just headed straight for New York? Regardless, after learning that "bloodless medicine" is a fairly well-established field, and after considering Matt Fenwick's vehement rebuttal of my reasoning, I'm going to clarify my stand on this.

I never explicitly said otherwise, but my non-expert opinion is that the girl should not be barred from receiving competent alternative treatment just because her doctors have deemed transfusions the best course of action. The fact that she doesn't want the transfusions should be a major factor in determining her treatment, even if the doctors think it's crazy and wrong, because the emotional stress involved is sure to negatively impact her prognosis.

If it looks like I'm softening my stance, it's not because I think 14-year-olds should be allowed to choose medical treatment B where medical treatment A offers vastly greater odds of success. I still don't think they should. Rather, it's because I see no evidence of vastly greater odds of success on either side of this case.

Still, it angers me that she has to go through this insanity. I agree with Matt that "ironic" probably wasn't the right term to describe someone who has willfully consented to enormously invasive medical procedures only to balk at a blood transfusion. "Ironic" isn't nearly strong enough a word. The Jehovah's Witnesses' anti-transfusion stance is commonly attributed to three Bible verses:

Only flesh with its soul — its blood — you must not eat. (Genesis 9:3-4)

You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh, because the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood. Anyone eating it will be cut off. (Leviticus 17:45)

Abstain… from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15:20)

That's it. This 14-year-old girl can't pursue her best option for cancer treatment because a thousand-and-something-year-old book prohibits its followers from eating blood. And what do Genesis, Leviticus and Acts mean in our topsy-turvy modern-day world? Apparently this:

Witnesses view [the verses] as ruling out transfusion of whole blood, packed RBCs, and plasma, as well as WBC and platelet administration. However, Witnesses' religious understanding does not absolutely prohibit the use of components such as albumin, immune globulins, and hemophiliac preparations; each Witness must decide individually if he can accept these.

Right. I'm sure that's just what Leviticus had in mind for the children of Israel. And from the same source, here's one of my all-time favourite religious-themed quotes: "The Witnesses do not feel that the Bible comments directly on organ transplants." Really? Nowhere? What about in the New Testament, next to the stuff about MRI scans, epidurals and hyperbaric chambers?

I mean… arrgh! Am I really prohibited from commenting on this on the grounds of letting everyone live his or her life however he or she wants? The Bible doesn't "comment directly" on anything that didn't happen or wasn't invented until after the Bible was written. I question the sanity of those who disagree with that, and renew my demand that children be protected from the negative consequences of such beliefs. If that means the state "raping" them to save them from dying, then so be it. If I'm bigoted against Jehovah's Witnesses, then so be that too. I welcome all such accusations, provided they're accompanied by a considered opinion of what good it would do to allow this child to die.

At this point, I think I've thoroughly explained my viewpoint, and I've freely admitted to some degree of reaching along the way, so I don't want to retreat into hypotheticals. I'll say this, though: if this girl was bleeding to death — if it was obvious that no course of action other than a transfusion would save her — then I would be as unequivocal about her receiving other peoples' blood as I was in my original post. In the case of permanently vegetative 42-year-old women with no prospects for meaningful recovery, it's arguable that we should err on the side of life. In the case of 14-year-olds with operable cancer, it's absolutely imperative that we do.

The girl from Vernon isn't bleeding to death. Alternative treatments exist, and the negative emotional impact of the proposed unwanted treatment on her prognosis cannot and should not be ignored. Bloodless treatment may be her best option. But that's the fault of the Jehovah's Witness faith, which should not be immune from criticism — from regular folks and from other religions — simply because it happens to be recognized as a legitimate religion.