Does 'No' Mean 'Yes'? The Continuing Problem of Jehovah's Witnesses and Refusal of Blood Products

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Publication Date


Publication Title

Second Opinion


Jehovah's Witnesses, blood transfusions


A topic of continuing interest in law and medicine, and in biomedical ethics, is the appropriate response to Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions when doing so may endanger their lives. In theory, it is settled law that competent adult Witnesses may not be forced to accept transfusions. In practice, however, Witnesses are often subject to intense coercion by medical personnel. For example, physicians often threaten to obtain court orders. Sometimes they actually seek such orders, and occasionally they obtain them (such an order may also be overturned on appeal, but it will be too late for the individual Witness involved). In these cases many physicians, lawyers, members of hospital ethics committees, and others believe that Witnesses actually wish to be coerced--that is, the thinking goes, the Witness believes that she is forbidden under pain of damnation to ask for or agree to a transfusion, but if she puts up a token resistance and is then forced to a transfusion by court order, the religious consequences do not apply. Ethicists have tried to address this issue with leaders of the denomination, but they have not obtained a clear answer (Jonsen 1986:92). Leaders have not definitively stated whether coerced transfusions carry the same stigma as freely accepted ones; nor will they confront the possibility that some of their flock may be fainthearted enough to wish secretly that legal coercion will save their lives.



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