New Watchtower Blood Transfusion Policy
Note: This article was published in 2000; some details - including links to news articles - may have changed since publication.
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." Witness parents are expected not only to prevent their children from undergoing a blood transfusion, but even to prevent family pets from receiving blood. 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.
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.
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, a former elder, 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." 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.
While many Jehovah's Witnesses have died due to refusing blood transfusions, recent developments in the Watchtower Society's policy on blood indicate that individuals who face a similar crisis today may not need to sacrifice their lives to prove their loyalty to the Society.
Recent Watchtower Controversies Concerning Blood Transfusions
In 1998, in order to receive legal recognition from the government of Bulgaria, the Watchtower Society signed an agreement with the Bulgarian government in which they stated 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." A press release distributed in 1997 by the European Commission of Human Rights clearly explains the understanding of the Commission and the Bulgarians of the Society's stated position: "In respect of the refusal of blood transfusion, the applicant association [i.e., the Jehovah's Witnesses] submits that there are no religious sanctions for a Jehovah's Witness who chooses to accept blood transfusion and that, therefore, the fact that the religious doctrine of Jehovah's Witnesses is against blood transfusion cannot amount to a threat to 'public health.'"
The Watchtower Society's perspective on the agreement can be found in a press release it distributed 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." 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."
The position of the Watchtower Society was clear: despite their agreement to allow Witnesses to receive blood transfusions in Bulgaria, in reality the Society had 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."
Widespread speculation on the Society's position vis-à-vis blood transfusions began in May with the publication of the June 15, 2000, issue of The Watchtower, in which the Society reiterated that Jehovah's Witnesses may receive blood fractions in their medical treatment, but still may not receive transfusions of whole blood. Speculation increased with a rumor - spread on the Internet - that the Governing Body had met on May 24, 2000 and decided that Jehovah's Witnesses who accepted blood transfusions would no longer be subject to investigation by judicial committees.
The most significant development that spurred such speculation was the June 14, 2000, article by Ruth Gledhill in the London Times, "U-Turn on Blood Transfusions by Witnesses." Jehovah's Witnesses, according to Gledhill, are now allowed to accept blood transfusions. Gledhill quotes Paul Gillies, Watchtower spokesperson in the United Kingdom:
It is quite possible that someone who was under pressure on an operating table would take a blood transfusion because they did not want to die. The next day they might say they regretted this decision. We would then give them spiritual comfort and help. No action would be taken against them. We would just view it as a moment of weakness.
Witnesses who receive a transfusion and are unrepentant, however, will be viewed as having disassociated themselves from the Society. In response to Gledhill's article, the Watchtower Society issued the following press release:
An article published in the June 14, 2000, issue of a British newspaper has incorrectly publicized what it feels to be a major change in the religious doctrine of Jehovah's Witnesses regarding blood transfusions. In order to correct the misinformation, Jehovah's Witnesses are providing the following statement. The Bible commands Christians to "abstain...from blood." (Acts 15:20). Jehovah's Witnesses believe that it is not possible to abstain from blood and accept blood transfusions. They have consistently refused donor blood ever since transfusions began to be widely used in civilian medical practice in the 1940s, and this scriptural position has not changed. If one of Jehovah's Witnesses is transfused against his or her will, Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe that this constitutes a sin on the part of the individual. This position has not changed.
If one of Jehovah's Witnesses accepts a blood transfusion in a moment of weakness and then later regrets the action, this would be considered a serious matter. Spiritual assistance would be offered to help the person regain spiritual strength. This position has not changed.
If a baptized member of the faith willfully and without regret accepts blood transfusions, he indicates by his own actions that he no longer wishes to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses. The individual revokes his own membership by his own actions, rather than the congregation initiating this step. This represents a procedural change instituted in April 2000 in which the congregation no longer initiates the action to revoke membership in such cases. However, the end result is the same: the individual is no longer viewed as one of Jehovah's Witnesses because he no longer accepts and follows a core tenet of the faith. However, if such an individual later changes his mind, he may be accepted back as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. This position has not changed.
Jehovah's Witnesses seek quality medical care and accept medical alternatives to blood transfusions. Support is given to members to help them obtain medical treatment that respects their religious convictions.
Contact: James N. Pellechia, telephone: (718) 560-5600
The Society, in its press release, specifically states that there has been no change in doctrine, and lists several practices that it also claims have not been changed. While it is true that the doctrine has not changed, several of the ways in which the doctrine is lived by Jehovah's Witnesses have changed dramatically.
Changes in Accepted Blood Fractions
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." These "minor" components were allowed because they are derived from plasma (a serum that is ninety percent water), which is separated from the cellular components of blood (red and white cells, and platelets) that were not allowed. The Society has explicitly condemned receiving cellular blood components in medical treatment. Regarding the biblical prohibitions to abstain from blood, the Society writes, "Witnesses view them as ruling out transfusion of whole blood, packed RBCs [i.e., red blood cells], and plasma, as well as WBC [i.e., white blood cells] and platelet administration." In a medical journal Watchtower physicians recently stated, "Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept whole blood, or major components of blood, namely, red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma. Also they do not accept hemoglobin, which is a major part of red blood cells."
The article in the June 14, 2000, issue of The Watchtower reveals a significant change in the Society's policy toward receiving blood fractions derived from blood cells (it should be noted that the Society continues to forbid receiving whole blood, or complete blood cells). Whereas past transfusion of fractions of blood components would have resulted in disfellowshipping, the Society now concludes, "When it comes to fractions of any of the primary components, each Christian, after careful and prayerful meditation, must conscientiously decide for himself." In support of their new position, the Society notes that a fetus receives bilirubin - a fraction of red blood cells - from its mother through the placenta. Because the fetus receives this fraction from an external source, the Society concludes that it is therefore acceptable for adult Witnesses to also receive fractions from blood cells.
Despite the Society's claim that their policy has not changed, comparing the article from the current Watchtower with previous statements proves that the Society is now allowing blood components that were previously forbidden. Furthermore, the potential impact of the change on Jehovah's Witnesses is quite significant. As the Associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood state, "The new policy will open the door to JWs accepting many additional blood products and eventually blood substitutes that are hemoglobin based."
Changes in Punishment for Receiving Transfusions
The Society claims that Jehovah's Witnesses who receive a blood transfusion, but afterwards are repentant for receiving the treatment, will not be subject to excommunication. They further claim that this is not a change in their policy.
In contrast to this statement of stability, the penalty for receiving a blood transfusion, be it whole blood or fractions of primary components, was severe: "The receiver of a blood transfusion must be cut off from God's people by excommunication or disfellowshiping." The circumstances under which the individual received a transfusion, or the repentance afterward, were irrelevant to the punishment incurred: "[Receiving a transfusion] is a violation of God's command to Christians, the seriousness of which should not be minimized by any passing over of it lightly as being an optional matter for the conscience of any individual to decide upon."
Furthermore, the pressure of a life-or-death situation was also not a factor: "Contrary to how some today reason, God's law on blood was not to be ignored just because an emergency arose&our Life-Giver never said that his standards could be ignored in an emergency." This policy is vividly illustrated in the previously mentioned example of Paul Blizard and his daughter. Rather than being forgiven for the transfusion, the Blizards were shunned by their congregation.
The fact that Jehovah's Witnesses can now receive blood transfusions - within limits - without necessarily being disfellowshipped is encouraging for observers of the Watchtower Society. This encouragement must be tempered, however, by the ambiguity of the Society's new position. There are currently no standards for determining whether a Witness is truly repentant for receiving a transfusion; this determination is therefore left to the discretion of individual elders. While some elders may show great compassion toward victims of medical emergencies, other elders may continue to hold to the position that blood transfusions are inexcusable under any circumstances. In the latter case, the Witness will likely be considered by the elders to have disassociated himself. Futhermore, because appeals for judicial decisions can only be made to the same congregational judicial committee that voted for punishment, there is little hope that a Witness could successfully appeal an involuntary "disassociation."
A further concern is the way in which the Society will attempt to "help the [recipient of a transfusion] regain spiritual strength." This vague statement can be interpreted in different ways. A compassionate elder could attempt to convince the Witness that, while receiving a transfusion did not meet the ideal for Watchtower behavior, it is nonetheless a forgivable "offense." Unfortunately, the ambiguity of this statement also opens the door to potential abuse. The Witness could be repeatedly told that he or she has committed an act of cannibalism; the Society has even said of transfusion recipients (quoting a seventeenth-century writer) that we should "abhor those who stain their gullet with human blood." Such teaching could result in terrible psychological and spiritual trauma for the Witness.
There is a very likely punishment to help Witnesses "regain spiritual strength." A letter reportedly sent by the Society to all the local branches allegedly dictates that Witnesses who receive transfusions should not serve in any "'privileged capacity', such as an elder, ministerial servant or pioneer." Such a restriction - if true - means that while Witnesses who receive transfusions will not be disfellowshipped, they will be treated as second-class members of their congregations. Furthermore, if the recipient (or his or her caregiver) is in such a privileged position, it is likely that the Witness will be forced to resign that position, leading to public disgrace.
Reports that the Watchtower Society now allows blood transfusions have been excessive. While repentant Witnesses will be forgiven for undergoing the procedure, the Society continues to teach that blood transfusions are a violation of God's prohibition against eating blood. There are nonetheless good reasons for rejoicing in the current changes in Watchtower policy. Jehovah's Witnesses now have an expanded array of medical treatments that are accepted by the Society, and they also have the possibility of being spared the abusive practice of disfellowshipping if they receive a transfusion.
Despite these positive changes, non-Jehovah's Witnesses still have valid reasons for concern. The Society's prohibition against transfusions remains in place, guaranteeing that very conservative Witnesses will continue to refuse all treatments involving blood fractions (the Society even says that such individuals' "sincere, conscientious stand should be respected"). This attitude - which will almost certainly be perpetuated by some elders - will lead to continued deaths within the Watchtower Society.
In an attempt to show Jehovah's Witnesses that the position of the Society is both unreliable and inaccurate, Christians should attempt to do three things.
First, show Witnesses that the Society HAS in fact changed its teachings. By referring Witnesses to the quotes that show the Society's previous stand regarding receiving fractions of primary blood components, the Witness will be able to see - from the Society's own words - both that the teaching has changed, and that the Society is being dishonest in claiming that its teachings and practices remain unchanged.
Second, teach Witnesses that 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." 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." 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.
Finally, teach Witnesses the Biblical perspective on transfusions. As stated above, the Bible explicitly condemns eating blood. The Noahide covenant forbids eating blood, as do the Mosaic covenant and the ruling of the Jerusalem council. 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. 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).
 Blood, Medicine, and the Law of God (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1961), p. 55. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 54.
 "Questions From the Readers," Watchtower, February 15 (1964), p. 127.
 Card on file.
 Jehovah's Witnesses and the Question of Blood (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1977), p. 18.
 Leonard Chretien, Witnesses of Jehovah (Eugene, Or: Harvest House Publishers, 1988), p. 197.
 Copy on file.
 "Questions From Readers," Watchtower, January 15 (1961), p. 64.
 See "Questions From Readers," Watchtower, June 15 (2000), pp. 2931.
 In Watchtower terminology, a disassociated person voluntarily withdraws his or her membership as a Jehovah's Witness.
 Copy on file. Italics in original.
 "Questions From Readers," Watchtower, June 1 (1990), pp. 3031.
 Ibid., p. 30. The inconsistency in allowing these minor components, which to obtain require large quantities of whole blood to be separated, is examined in Jason Barker, "Bulgaria and Blood," The Watchman Expositor, 15.3 (1998), pp. 1820.
 How Can Blood Save Your Life (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1990), p. 27.
 Richard Bailey and Tomonori Ariga, "The View of Jehovah's Witnesses on Blood Substitutes," Artif Cells Blood Substit Immobil Biotechnol, 26 (1998), pp. 57176. Quoted in Associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood, "Watchtower Blood Policy Changes Again," New Light on Blood [Online]. URL http://www.ajwrb.org/basics/change.shtml.
 "Questions From Readers," June 15 (2000), p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid. Interestingly, in a 1990 article about transfusions, the Society used the fetus as an example for allowing the reception of plasma fractions; they did not, however, mention bilirubin or the possibility of receiving fractions of red blood cells. See "Questions From Readers," June 1 (1990), p. 31.
 "Watchtower Blood Policy Changes Again," [Online].
 "Questions From Readers," Watchtower, January 15 (1961), p. 64.
 How Can Blood Save Your Life? p. 4.
 Chretien, p. 197.
 Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1991), p. 124.
 Thomas Bartholin, quoted in How Can Blood Save Your Life? p. 6.
 "Breaking News," [Online].
 "Questions From Readers," June 15 (2000), p. 30.
 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker, 1999), p. 434.
 James Sire,Scripture Twisting (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1980), p.86.
 Leviticus 3:17.