Of all of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ peculiar ideology that attracts the most attention is their controversial and inconsistent prohibition of transfusions of a red biological fluid—blood—donated by caring people to save lives.
In light of the fact that patients in need of blood rarely require all of the components of whole blood, modern medical treatment calls for only that portion needed for a particular condition or disease, and this is referred to as “blood component therapy.”
The following information is centered on this therapy that is being used to save Jehovah’s Witnesses lives.
The “Fluid of Life” and the “Breath of Life”
Although our bodies are surrounded and bathed in oxygen, breathing in oxygen would not sustain our life if it weren’t for our blood inasmuch as the key function of blood is to absorb oxygen in the lungs and transport it throughout the body. Without blood pumped by the heart and circulated throughout the body via the arteries, veins, and capillaries, with its oxygen carrying capabilities, we could not live. Hence, blood is not only the “fluid of life,” but by tradition, has been regarded as the “breath of life.”
The “Fruit of the Fluid of Life”
Blood products (fractions) can be said to be “the fruit of the ‘fluid of life’” because products from blood are used as life-saving medicines.
Prior to 1945, Jehovah’s Witnesses were permitted to accept blood transfusions and all blood products. Then in 1945, whole blood and blood fractions were officially banned for use by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The January 8, 1954 issue of the Awake! p. 24, illustrates the issue:
In 1958, blood serums such as diphtheria antitoxin and gamma globulin were allowed as a matter of personal judgment. But that view would change many more times.
But the blood prohibition was without penalty until 1961 when disfellowshipping and shunning was put into place for transgressors.
Nothing could be clearer than in 1961 when it was plainly specified that the blood-ban applied to both whole blood and components of blood such as blood fractions and hemoglobin.
The blood-ban continued (although in 1978 hemophiliacs officially learned they could accept treatment with blood components) until 1982 when Witness leaders introduced their doctrine of what they termed, major and minor blood components or products. The very use of the word “minor” in reference to some blood components has with it a connotation of being a minute or inconsequential amount which should be viewed as a misnomer or unsuitable designation when related to this subject.
Minor products were allowed, major ones were forbidden. The so-called major ones, four of them, still banned to this day, are broken down in Witness terminology as plasma, red and white blood cells, and platelets. Witnesses unequivocally refuse whole blood, red blood cells, platelet rich plasma (PRP), which is whole blood minus red blood cells, platelets, and fresh frozen plasma (FFP). (In June of 2000, the 1990 rationale for the allowance of fractions was replaced. Blood then was divided into “Primary” and “Secondary” components.)
Jehovah’s Witnesses opinion of what the major components of blood are is different from the widely accepted point of view of medical experts who contend that blood primarily consists of cells and fluid (plasma).
Blood consists of cells and fluid (plasma). There are three types of blood cells, namely red blood cells (erythrocytes), white blood cells (leukocytes) and platelets (thrombocytes). Blood cells are produced in the red bone marrow, from where they are released into the blood stream. In the fluid part of the blood, called plasma, blood cells are transported throughout the body. Plasma contains a great variety of unique constituents.
Plasma fractionation produces “life-sustaining” medicines
On page 6 of the January 15, 1995 Watchtower, it states, “…our Maker forbids the use of blood to sustain life.” In the June 15, 2000 Watchtower, we read: “…when it comes to fractions of any of the primary components, each Christian, after careful and prayerful meditation, must conscientiously decide for himself.” Apparently, the Watch Tower Society’s view is “our Maker” does not forbid fractions of any of the primary components because they do not sustain life.
Inasmuch as the permitted plasma derived fractions such as protease inhibitors; albumin; EPO; hemoglobin; blood serums; immunoglobulins (gammaglobulins); Specific immunoglobulin preparations; Hepatitis B Immunoglobulin; Tetanus Immunoglobulin 250 IE; Anti Rhesus (D) Immunoglobulin, and hemophiliac treatments (clotting factors VIII & IX) are more often than not taken to sustain life, this reasoning is incongruous and bizarre. (See endnote explaining what medical conditions these products are used for.)
“Plasma,” a colorless fluid, is one of the “major” blood components Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden to take. It contains over 200 different proteins, which can broadly be divided into albumin, immunoglobulins, clotting factors and other proteins such as protease inhibitors. Most of plasma is processed into plasma products, also known as plasma-derived medicines. Jehovah’s Witnesses are permitted to take Cryoprecipritate antihemophilic factor (AHF), an extremely important medicine fractionated from plasma and which treats blood-coagulation diseases.
In the nineteenth century, interest in the ‘watery’ fraction of blood rapidly increased. It proved to be a source of new components, which can be isolated from it. In 1888, the German scientist Hofmeister published articles regarding the behaviour and solubility of blood proteins. Using ammonium sulphate, Hofmeister separated fractions that he called albumins and globulins. The principle of his differential precipitation-separation technique is still applied today.
During World War II, the physical chemist Edwin Cohn developed a method by which plasma can be divided in different fractions. Plasma proteins such as albumin could be obtained in concentrated form. Although various researchers later modified this separation process, Cohn’s original process is still applied in many places. After the war, new developments gained momentum.
In 1964, the American Judith Pool accidentally discovered that if frozen plasma thaws slowly at a temperature just above freezing point, a deposit is formed that contains a large amount of clotting factor VIII. The discovery of this ‘cryoprecipitate’ as a means to obtain factor VIII was a breakthrough for the treatment of patients with the blood-coagulation disease hemophilia A. Nowadays, a large number of plasma proteins can be isolated and used as medicine.
Moreover, after cryoprecipitate forms, a plasma protein, cryosupernatant, separates from it. Together, cryoprecipitate, which is around 1% of plasma, and cryosupernatant, which is around 99% of plasma, total up to be plasma. Witness leaders say that Witnesses abstain from plasma, but they do not in that both products contain globulins (all the proteins in plasma) with cryoprecipirate containing more concentrations of proteins, and cryosupernatant containing less. So, each one of these products is plasma because they both contain, to some degree, the same constituents. And they are both called plasma in medical literature and by medical personnel.
Although Witnesses are allowed to take one or the other of these two important blood products, or “fractions,” cryoprecipitate or cryosupernatant, both fractionated from plasma, they generally don’t know about cryosupernatant because this 99% watery substance and soluble product is not documented in Watch Tower literature; hence, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not aware it is permitted because it’s not on the allowable list but a phone call to Bethel will reveal that taking it is a “conscience matter. Sad to say, it is not permissible for the Hospital Liaison Teams to mention cryosupernatant to doctors, or to patients, unless patients or patients’ families inquire about the product. In addition, physicians don’t usually suggest cryosupernatant as the medicine of choice for a condition such as, for instance, Refractory Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which is life-threatening, once the patient declares use of plasma off limits. If no information about this life-saving medicine is made available to a patient¸ how can that patient make an “informed” decision? This is tantamount to criminal if resulting in death.
Physicians and Jehovah’s Witnesses blood prohibition
Jehovah’s Witnesses National Director in Canada, Warren Shewfelt, observed: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing fewer and fewer problems in obtaining medical treatment that conforms to their Christian conscience.”
Why are Jehovah’s Witnesses “experiencing fewer and fewer problems obtaining medical treatment…”? It’s quite simple—Witnesses are now permitted to receive every individual blood component or “fraction” that their leaders view as “minor” or “secondary” as a matter of personal conscience other than the components they consider as “major” or “primary. However, if combined, all “secondary” blood components equal whole blood.
As one former Witness observed: “There is only ONE MAJOR component of blood that does not exist in some form on Watch Tower’s list of approved “conscience matter” products and that is water. There is no component of a whole blood transfusion that Jehovah’s Witnesses may not accept as long as it is fractionated first. Due to the absurdity of the self-righteous—obsessed with rules—Watch Tower Society, the only drawback is they can’t take them all at once or together.”
Inasmuch as Jehovah’s Witnesses take all of these minor or secondary components separately, which together constitutes whole blood, why should there be a problem finding medical treatment that conforms to their Christian conscience?
Mr. Shewfelt implies that they are not having many problems anymore with the blood-ban because the medical field respects the Witnesses Bible-based stand, but in fact, it’s because they take blood. This takes the Witnesses off the hook and rescues the medical profession from having to obtain court orders for under-age children.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule such as presentation of massive bleeding and that’s probably why Shewfelt said, there are “fewer and fewer problems” now.
Since there is a total ban by Watch Tower on taking plasma, platelets, and white or red blood cells, it appears that smart physicians are giving Witness patients fractions of these components whenever it is feasible. Accordingly, there are fewer and fewer problems obtaining medical treatment for Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, moreover, the Witnesses believe they are being obedient to God’s law on blood.
Shewfelt said the medical profession is becoming increasingly willing to abide by the Witnesses’ beliefs, etc. Well, it’s obvious why—Jehovah’s Witnesses are not having problems with the medical profession because the medical profession is giving them blood in the form of fractions, which, incidentally, is the way blood is normally given these days.
See the deceit behind Witness representatives’ statements? This is how it goes no matter whether the subject is blood or any other confusing Witness teaching. Questions are never honestly addressed by Watch Tower representatives. Their words are always designed to fool the media, the reader, or the listener. Pure and simply, it is semantics, and done to manipulate the issue to their favor.
Dismantling the blood-ban
“One brick at a time, my dear citizens, one brick at a time” said Roman Emperor Hadrian on the rebuilding of Rome! The one-brick-at-a-time concept is also true in the dismantling of the Watch Tower’s blood-ban. Just in the past sixteen years, Witnesses could not have imagined in their wildest dreams how many bricks in the structure of their religion and blood doctrine have gone by the wayside. Most tenets were old Freddy Franz concoctions that the Watch Tower Society has slowly divested itself of, with few Witnesses being the wiser.
In connection with the historically flawed blood-ban doctrine, what about Jehovah’s Witnesses never being officially told that the fraction hemoglobin was acceptable by personal decision? The last official pronouncement from the Watch Tower in its general literature was that hemoglobin was not permitted by a true Christian. This was contrary to many academic medical journals that were reporting the outcome of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses surviving after receiving hemoglobin through the help of their Hospital Liaison Committee. This caused Bethel’s Writing Department to promptly correct the situation by writing the August 2006 Awake! cover series on blood which finally and officially told followers that hemoglobin was allowed by personal decision.
Consequently, Watch Tower critics should continue to be patient, for if Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrinal track record is any example, then their present blood-ban-belief will, in the future, be a discarded, ancient history blood-ban-belief.
“A conscience matter”
A short time ago I said openly on an Internet discussion board: “Watch Tower has made a few steps in the right direction in light of the fact that blood transfusions are now said publicly to be a conscience matter.”
The key word I used was “publicly” because so far there is nowhere to be found anything written or announced to Jehovah’s Witnesses that taking blood is a conscience matter. Nevertheless, for quite a number of years, Watch Tower representatives have been arguing successfully in some international courts, and to governmental officials that Witnesses blood-ban stance is an individual “conscience matter.”
The primary aspiration of Watch Tower leaders is to achieve recognition as an organized religion in countries where that is not now the case, or holding onto recognition where it has been granted. Telling courts and nations around the world that Jehovah’s Witnesses exercise their own consciences when choosing not to receive blood transfusions is once more a matter of semantics. It is language used to achieve a desired effect that being to keep Watch Tower from being accused of infringement of human rights if a member is disfellowshipped and shunned for taking a transfusion, when all across Europe and other nations outside of the United States, human rights issues are of paramount importance. Many former Witnesses were disappointed when they read the 2010 European Court of Human Rights decision (see endnote), but within that decision is an underlying warning:
A competent adult patient is free to decide… not to have a blood transfusion. However, for this freedom to be meaningful, patients must have the right to make choices that accord with their own views and values, regardless of how irrational, unwise or imprudent such choices may appear to others.
Now Watch Tower has to be exceedingly careful in Europe and Russia not to give the ECHR any cause to reverse their decision if there is evidence of coercion and not freedom of conscience to refuse blood.
This “conscious matter” claim made by Watch Tower is a step in the right direction, but that’s certainly not a compliment. After going in the wrong direction by causing the deaths of tens of thousands of believers over the past sixty-five years, the billion-dollar Watch Tower Corporation is trying to get itself out from between a rock and a hard place and not to collapse while trying. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their corporate leaders, and attorneys realize that their flawed and deadly blood-ban theology can not be eliminated by the stroke of a pen, but slowly in the direction they are now going, which is permitting Witnesses to accept whatever blood as medicine treatment that physicians proscribe to save their lives, and yet, at the same time, believe they are not breaking Watch Tower’s blood-ban. Indeed, Witnesses now can have it both ways.
When old diehard leaders—Fred Rusk, a rabid proponent of obedience to the blood doctrine, and Gene Smalley, the architect and author of the Witnesses modern blood doctrine—die, today’s blood ban that has been many times adapted to new circumstances will go the way of the tyrannosaurus rex and the dodo bird. How many more times can this issue be tinkered with and still be a “sin”? When Fred and Gene are gone, it is my opinion that Watch Tower attorneys will be happy, especially attorney, Don Ridley, a man, I was told by a Legal Department staff member, rarely happy with Gene Smalley’s manipulation of the minds of Governing Body members on the subject of blood.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell”
Long-time critic, Dr. O. Muramoto, commented about the Watch Tower’s intrusion “…into its members’ personal decision-making about medical care by proposing “that the religious organization of the Witnesses adopt a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy, which assures JWs that they would neither be asked nor compelled to reveal personal medical information, either to one another or to the church organization.”
As yet, there is not an actual “don’t ask, don’t tell” Watch Tower policy in effect. However, these very words were used by a former elder to me about the Watch Tower’s recent course of action instructing elders not to seek out fellow Witnesses after surgery to inquire if blood was taken. And no announcement of any kind is to be made if a Witness feels remorse for secretly accepting blood and confesses to the elders, but that one is to be forgiven.
“Watch Tower spokesman Donald T. Ridley says neither elders nor HLC members are instructed or encouraged to probe into the health care decisions of Witness patients and do not involve themselves in patient hospitalizations unless patients request their assistance.”
The words used by the elder were, “It’s as if there is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in effect.” Although elders do their duties concerning blood cards, he said, many elders are loathe to be “enforcers” of a blood-ban they don’t understand now that it is acceptable to receive just about any “blood product” as medicine.
Generally speaking blood as medicine is being accepted by Witnesses with few questions asked, although there are a few doctrinal “stand fasters,” usually older Witnesses, those who will not accept blood products—the “fruit of the fluid of life”—because of equating them to “eating” blood—the “fluid of life.”
As the older members die off, the present, younger, less passionate of the group will do whatever they want in this matter, and no one will give it a second-thought. For the most part this newer generation of Witnesses (mostly born-ins) can’t defend their religion’s simplest beliefs and they certainly won’t give their lives for some doctrine they don’t understand nor care to understand. It is a fact that more and more consciences of Witnesses are not subscribing to their organization’s deadly blood-ban theology and secretly accept whatever blood product, or even whole blood, if their doctor recommends it and if it means they will stay alive.
It all boils down to this: From one side of their mouth Watch Tower leaders unyieldingly continue to prohibit the flock from accepting whole blood or the four “primary” components (with tacit shunning), to make it appear as if they are in no way backing away from their controversial theological blood-ban.
Out of the other side of their mouth they hypocritically give approval to medicine prepared out of blood; approve plasma-derived medicine that is actually plasma; tell courts and governments that taking blood is a conscience matter on the part of their members when it’s not; back off from investigating whether someone in need of blood accepted it; absolve those who do take blood if they say “I’m sorry”; draft a statement of compromise for the Bulgarian government, “…providing that members should have free choice in the matter for themselves and their children, without any control or sanction on the part of the association,” and permit parents to consent to treatment that may involve blood, yet doing so in a way that the parents will not suffer any sanction (shunning) by the congregation since it would be “not viewed by the congregation as a compromise,” thus protecting themselves from accusation of violating human rights.
In my opinion, from the direction this doctrinal nightmare is taking, if Watch Tower plays its cards right, dying from this deadly theology—not from some deadly blood pathogens they forever point a finger at—will be a thing of the past. Soon Jehovah’s Witnesses will be off the blood-ban hook and so will the Watch Tower Society, and, if truth be told, that’s what the hard-line decision-makers at headquarters really care about.