Jehovah's Witnesses: Bulgaria and Blood

Jason Barker 

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has long forbidden blood transfusions for Jehovah's Witnesses.  The issue is so serious, in fact, that Witnesses believe a blood transfusion "may result in the immediate and very temporary prolongation of life, but at the cost of eternal life for a dedicated Christian" (Blood, Medicine, and the Law of God, p. 55; emphasis added).  Witness parents are expected not only to prevent their children from undergoing a blood transfusion (Ibid., p. 54), but even to prevent family pets from receiving blood (Watchtower, February 15, 1964, p. 127).  In order to prevent their being administered blood transfusions while unconscious, each Witness is required to carry a card that states:    

I direct that no blood transfusions be  administered to me, even though others deem such  necessary to preserve my life or health.  I  will accept non-blood expanders.  This is in  accord with my rights as a patient and my beliefs  as one of Jehovah's Witnesses.  I  hereby release the doctors and hospital of any  damages attributed to my refusal.  This  document is valid even if I am unconscious, and  it is binding upon my heirs or legal  representatives. (card on file)

The Watchtower Society forbids blood transfusions because the procedure allegedly constitutes eating blood, which is forbidden in the Bible in Genesis 9:4 and Acts 15:28-29.  They contend that receiving blood intravenously constitutes eating, just as people can receive food intravenously (Jehovah's Witnesses and the Question of Blood, p. 18).

A large number of Jehovah's Witnesses, including many children, have died due to their loyalty to the Watchtower Society.  The May 22, 1994, issue of Awake! featured the stories of five children who died after refusing blood transfusions.  These stories, similar in tone and rhetoric to the child-martyr stories of the Victorian era, depict children who inspired respect and acceptance for the Society as they happily sacrificed their lives to uphold the Watchtower's regulations.  Unfortunately, however, the reality of the situation is often far grimmer.  In a particularly horrifying example of how seriously Jehovah's Witnesses take the Society's prohibition, Paul Blizard tells of his experience when his daughter needed a transfusion.  After Blizard accepted a court order requiring that his daughter receive a transfusion, an elder said, "I hope your daughter gets hepatitus (sic) from that blood" (Witnesses of Jehovah, p. 197).  Blizard, his wife, and even their daughter were then shunned by their congregation for not smuggling the girl out from the hospital to avoid the transfusion (Ibid.).

News from Bulgaria

On March 9, 1998, the European Commission of Human Rights accepted a settlement between the government of Bulgaria and the Christian Association of Jehovah's Witnesses in which Bulgaria, in exchange for a significant concession from the Witnesses, agreed to recognize the Witnesses as an official religious organization.

The Bulgarian government, in order to reach an agreement, will now provide civilian service for conscientious objectors to military service (Information Note No. 148, < 148.html).  The compromise made by the Society is far more noteworthy.  The Society agreed, regarding blood transfusions, 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" (Ibid.; emphases added).;  emphasis added).

This concession seems to be a remarkable reversal of Watchtower doctrine, raising the question: will Jehovah's Witnesses now be allowed to receive blood transfusions, or was the Society disingenuous in its agreement?

The Watchtower Society's Press Release

A definite clue can be found in a press release distributed by the Society on April 27, 1998.  In announcing the agreement with Bulgaria, the only information about the agreement to allow transfusions is the statement: "The agreement also includes an acknowledgment that each individual has the freedom to choose the type of medical treatment he receives" (copy on file).  This vague statement, while not openly contradicting the agreement, also contains no indication of the historic compromise to which the Society agreed by ostensibly allowing blood transfusions. 

The 1997 press release by the Commission, explaining their position regarding the then-unsettled case, alerted many people to a perceived doctrinal change by the Society. To prevent the media or other Witnesses from drawing their own conclusions about doctrinal changes, the Society stated in its press release: "The terms of the agreement do not reflect a change in the doctrine of Jehovah's Witnesses" (copy on file).

The position of the Watchtower Society is clear: despite their agreement to allow Witnesses to receive blood transfusions in Bulgaria, in reality the Society has no intention of honoring this agreement.  The Society will continue to levy religious sanctions against Witnesses who receive blood transfusions, forcing the Witnesses to decide between possible death or "excommunication or disfellowshipping" (Watchtower, January 15, 1961, p. 64).

Is the Society's Position Valid?

The Society has been extremely reluctant to openly address the implications of their agreement with Bulgaria.  Watchtower public affairs representative Judah Schroeder has staunchly refused to discuss with the author whether the Bulgarian government fully understands the Society's position on blood transfusions.

Legal ramifications notwithstanding, is the Society correct in asserting that the Bible forbids blood transfusions?  An analysis of the medical evidence refutes the Watchtower doctrine against transfusions.

Transfusions do not constitute eating

Contrary to the Society's position, receiving a blood transfusion is not the same as eating blood.  Food is "eaten," either through oral consumption or intravenous infusion, and then digested in order to provide the body with necessary nutrients that can only be obtained externally from the body. Norman Geisler explains: "Eating is the literal taking in of food in the normal manner through the mouth and into the digestive system.  The reason intravenous injections are referred to as 'feeding' is because the ultimate result is that, through intravenous injection, the body receives the nutrients that it normally would receive by eating" (When Critics Ask, p. 434).

Blood transfusions, on the other hand, are simply the replenishment of an essential substance that is normally resident in the body.  James Sire states that "a transfusion replenishes the supply of essential, life-sustaining fluid that has otherwise drained away or become incapable of performing its vital tasks in the body.  A blood transfusion is not even equivalent to intravenous feeding because the blood so given does not function as food" (Scripture Twisting, p. 86).

Because the physiological process involved with consuming and digesting food differs dramatically from the circulation of blood, the Jehovah's Witnesses' doctrine is easily seen to be incorrect.

Blood components are allowed by the Society 

While forbidding the transfusion of blood and "major" blood components, the Society has long allowed the consumption of such "minor" blood components as albumin and immunoglobulins; these components are permissible because blood is thus used in "small quantities" (Awake!, June 22, 1982, pp. 25-27).  This policy is contradictory. Dr. Lowell Dixon, former staff physician for the Brooklyn headquarters, explains, "If a person needs a particular blood element to save his life then that element is a 'major' one for him" (quoted in In Search of Christian Freedom, p. 287).

A further inconsistency in the doctrine can be found in the allowance of the minor components.  A person suffering from third degree burns over forty percent of her body would need to receive approximately 600 grams of albumin.  In order to extract this amount of albumin, from eleven to sixteen quarts of blood would be needed; this is certainly not a "small quantity" of blood (In Search of Christian Freedom, p. 290).  Similarly, extracting the immunoglobulins needed for a single cholera vaccination requires over three quarts of blood (Ibid.).

Witness hemophiliacs are allowed to take preparations that include Factor VIII, a blood component that assists in clotting(Watchtower, June 15, 1978, pp. 30-31).  The amount of blood required to extract enough Factor VIII for a hemophiliac to live 16.5 years is over 100,000 quarts (In Search of Christian Freedom, p. 290).  Interestingly, while Witness hemophiliacs are allowed to take preparations with Factor VIII, a non-hemophiliac who is involved in an accident may not take this clotting agent (Comments from the Friends, Winter 1994, p. 4).  The rationale seems to be that hemophiliacs are only using a small amount of the blood component at one time, whereas an accident victim requires a large quantity of Factor VIII to increase clotting.

This inconsistency underlines the Society's deficient understanding of the importance of all blood components.  The Society's claim that they allow the use of only "minor" blood components is unfounded; large quantities of blood are needed to extract these "minor" components.  In reality, all blood components are "major" because they are vital physical elements.

What is the Biblical Position on Blood Transfusions?

As stated above, the Bible explicitly condemns eating blood.  The Noahide covenant forbids eating blood (Genesis 9:4), as do the Mosaic covenant and the ruling of the Jerusalem council (Leviticus 17:11-14; Acts 15:28-29)

These scriptures notably forbid the consumption of animal blood.  Leviticus explicitly states that the blood of "beast or fowl" is to be poured out before the flesh can be eaten.  Ironically, while the Society outlaws transfusions on the basis of Leviticus, they allow Witnesses to consume animal fat, which was similarly forbidden to the Israelites (Leviticus 3:17).

Blood transfusions were not practiced at the times of the biblical writings, and thus are not directly addressed by the Bible.  For this reason orthodox Jews, who rigorously follow kosher laws, allow transfusions while forbidding oral blood consumption.  Jews and Christians have, through objective analysis of biblical regulations and medical evidence, determined that eating and digesting animal blood in no way resembles the intravenous replacement of human circulatory fluid.

The Society's broad interpretation of the passages above is in reality a case of eisegesis: the Society is using its doctrine to interpret the Bible, rather than using the Bible to inform its doctrine.  Many people have endured untold suffering and death because the Watchtower Society does not "abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that [they] may approve things that are excellent" (Philippians 1:9-10).

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