Defending the Indefensible

In the years between 1945-1961, there were many new discoveries and breakthroughs in medical science. In 1954, the first successful kidney transplant was performed. The potential benefits for society using therapies involving transfusions and organ transplants was profound. Yet sadly, the No Blood doctrine prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from benefiting from such advances. Worse, compliance with the doctrine likely contributed to the untimely deaths of an unknown number of members, including infants and children.

Armageddon Kept On Delaying

Clayton Woodworth died in 1951, leaving the leadership of the Organization to continue this precarious teaching. Playing the usual trump card (Prov 4:18) and devising “new light” to replace this teaching was not an option.  Any serious medical complications and deaths linked to the faithful’s adherence to what they took as a sound Scriptural interpretation would only increase from year to year.  If the doctrine was dropped, the door could be opened for huge liability costs, threatening the Organizations coffers. Leadership was trapped and Armageddon (their get-out-of-jail-free card) was delaying. The only option was to continue to defend the indefensible. Regarding this, Professor Lederer continues on page 188 of in her book:

“In 1961, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society issued Blood, Medicine, and the Law of God outlining the Witness position on blood and transfusion.  The author of this pamphlet returned to the original sources to buttress claims that blood represented nutrition, quoting among its sources a letter from the French physician Jean-Baptiste Denys that had appeared in George Crile’s Hemorrhage and Transfusion.  (The booklet did not mention that Denys letter appeared in the 1660’s, nor did it indicate that Crile’s text had been published in 1909).” [Boldface added]

The above quote documents that in 1961 (16 years after the No Blood doctrine was enacted) leadership had to return to the original sources to bolster their archaic premise.  Obviously, a modern medical study in a reputable journal would have served their interests far better, but there were none to be had; so they had to go back to obsolete and discredited findings, omitting the dates to maintain the semblance of credibility.

Had this particular teaching been purely an academic interpretation of scripture—just another anti-typical prophetic parallel—then the use of outdated references would have been of little consequence. But here we have a teaching that could (and did) involve life or death, all resting on outdated premise. Membership deserved to be updated with the current medical thinking.  Yet, doing so would have brought great difficulty upon the leadership and the organization both legally and financially.  Still, which is more precious to Jehovah, preserving material things or preserving human life? The slide down the slippery slope continued to a low point a few years later.

In 1967, the first heart transplant was successfully performed.  Kidney transplants were now standard practice, but required a blood transfusion.  With such advancements in transplant therapy, the question arose regarding whether organ transplants (or organ donation) were permissible for Christians.  The following “Questions From Readers” provided leadership’s decision:

“Humans were allowed by God to eat animal flesh and to sustain their human lives by taking the lives of animals, though they were not permitted to eat blood. Did this include eating human flesh, sustaining one’s life by means of the body or part of the body of another human, alive or dead? No! That would be cannibalism, a practice abhorrent to all civilized people.” (Watchtower, November 15, 1967 p. 31[Boldface added]

To remain consistent with the premise that a blood transfusion is “eating” blood, an organ transplant had to be viewed as “eating” the organ. Is this bizarre? This remained the official position of the Organization until 1980. How tragic to think of those brothers and sisters who died unnecessarily between 1967-1980, unable to accept an organ transplant. Moreover, how many were disfellowshipped because they were convinced that leadership had gone off the deep end comparing an organ transplant to cannibalism?

Is the premise even remotely within the realm of scientific possibilities?

A Clever Analogy

In 1968 the archaic premise was again promoted as truth. A clever new analogy (still used to this day) was introduced to convince the reader that the effect (in the body) of a transfusion was the same as ingesting blood through the mouth. The claim is made that to abstain from alcohol would mean to not ingest it nor have it intravenously injected. Therefore, to abstain from blood would include not having it intravenously injected in the veins. The argument was presented as follows:

”But is it not true that when a patient is unable to eat through his mouth, doctors often feed him by the same method in which a blood transfusion is administered? Examine the scriptures carefully and notice that they tell us to ‘keep free from blood’ and to ‘abstain from blood.’ (Acts 15:20, 29) What does this mean? If  a doctor were to tell you to abstain from alcohol, would that mean simply that  you should not take it through your mouth but that you could transfuse it directly into your veins? Of course not! So, too, ‘abstaining from blood’ means not taking it into our bodies at all. (The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, 1968  p. 167) [Boldface added]

The analogy seems logical, and many rank and file members to this day believe the analogy is sound. But is it? Note the comments of Dr. Osamu Muramoto regarding how scientifically flawed this argument is: (Journal of Medical Ethics 1998 p. 227)

“As any medical professional knows, this argument is false. Orally ingested alcohol is absorbed as alcohol and circulates as such in the blood, whereas orally eaten blood is digested and does not enter the circulation as blood. Blood introduced directly into the veins circulates and functions as blood, not as nutrition. Hence blood transfusion is a form of cellular organ transplantation. And as mentioned before, organ transplants are now permitted by the WTS. These inconsistencies are apparent to physicians and other rational people, but not to JWs because of the strict policy against viewing critical arguments.” [Boldface added]

Visualize a child in Africa with swollen abdomen due to a severe case of malnutrition.  When treated for this condition, what is prescribed? A blood transfusion? Of course not, because the blood would offer no nutritional value.  What is prescribed is a paranteral infusion of nutrients such as electrolytes, glucose, proteins, lipids, essential vitamins and trace minerals. In fact, to administer a transfusion to such a patient would be detrimental, not at all helpful.

Blood is high in sodium and iron. When ingested in the mouth blood is toxic. When used as blood transfused in the bloodstream, it travels to the heart, lungs, arteries, blood vessels and so forth, it is not toxic. It is essential for life.  When ingested in the mouth, blood travels through the digestive tract to the liver where it is broken down. Blood no longer functions as blood. It has none of the life sustaining qualities of transfused blood. The high amount of iron (found in hemoglobin) is so toxic to the human body if ingested it can be fatal.  If one were to attempt to survive on the nutrition the body would receive from drinking blood for food, one would first die of iron-poisoning.

The view that a blood transfusion is nutrition for the body is just as antiquated as other seventeenth-century views. Along this line, I’d like to share an article I found at Smithsonian.com (dated June 18, 2013). The article has a very interesting title: Why The Tomato Was Feared In Europe For More Than 200 Years. As wacky as the title appears, the story well illustrates how a centuries-old notion was proven to be a complete myth:

“Interestingly, in the late 1700s, a large percentage of Europeans feared the tomato. A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.”

The question that each Witness must ask is: Am I willing to make what could be a life-or-death medical decision for myself or my loved one based upon belief in a centuries-old premise that is scientifically impossible?  

The Governing Body requires that we (under threat of involuntary disassociation) comply with the official No Blood doctrine. Though it can be easily argued that the doctrine has been shredded as Jehovah’s Witnesses can now accept virtually 99.9% of blood constituents. A fair question is, over the years how many lives were prematurely cut short before the constituents of blood (including hemoglobin) became a conscience matter?

Tort of Misrepresentation?

In her essay presented in the Journal of Church and State (Vol. 47, 2005), entitled Jehovah’s Witnesses, Blood Transfusions, and the Tort of Misrepresentation, Kerry Louderback-Wood (an attorney who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and whose mother died after refusing blood) presents a compelling essay on the subject of misrepresentation. Her essay is available to download on the internet.  I encourage all to include this as essential reading during their personal research. I will share just one quote from the essay regarding the WT pamphlet How Can Blood Save Your Life? (1990):

“This section discusses the pamphlet’s veracity through analyzing the Society’s multiple misquotes of individual secular writers including: (1) scientists and biblical historians; (2) the medical community’s assessment of blood-born disease risks; and (3) doctors’ assessments of quality alternatives to blood, including the magnitude of risks from foregoing a blood transfusion.” [Boldface added]

Assuming the allegation that leadership intentionally misquoted secular writers is confirmed in a court of law, this would prove very negative and costly for the organization.  Removing certain words from their context can certainly leave membership with a false impression regarding what the writer intended. When members make medical decisions based upon misinformation and are harmed, there is liability.

In summary, we have a religious group with a religious doctrine that involves a life or death medical decision, founded upon an unscientific myth. If the premise is myth, the doctrine can not be scriptural. Members (and the lives of their loved ones) are at risk anytime they enter an ambulance, hospital or surgery center. All because the architects of the doctrine rejected modern medicine and chose to depend upon the opinion of physicians from centuries past.

Nevertheless, some might ask: Is not the success of bloodless surgery proof that the teaching is divinely backed by God? Ironically, our No Blood doctrine has a sliver lining for the medical profession. It is undeniable that great strides in bloodless surgery can be attributed to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is likely viewed by some as a godsend for surgeons and their medical teams all over the world, providing a steady stream of patients.

Part 3 of this series examines how it is that medical professionals could view their Jehovah’s Witness patients as a godsend. It is not because they view the doctrine as biblical nor that adherence to the doctrine brings God’s blessing.

(Download this file: Jehovahs Witnesses – Blood & Vaccines, to view a visual chart prepared by a member in England. It documents the slippery slope JW leadership has been on in attempting to defend the No Blood doctrine over the years. It includes references to doctrinal interpretations regarding both transfusion and organ transplants.)