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Recently a young lady in my church received a kidney transplant from another lady in the church. Both ladies went through the procedure well and the transplanted kidney began functioning immediately. Now the kidney recipient will be able to live the rest of her life without the aid of kidney dialysis. Similarly, I have often administered blood and blood products to patients in my career as a registered nurse, and these procedures have saved lives. Such stories are common in our medically advanced age, and most of us see organ transplants and blood transfusions as moderately risky but ultimately beneficial procedures. But if these two ladies from my church, or the many patients I’ve treated, were members of the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, would their case be viewed so positively?
According to a 1980 issue of Watchtower, the Jehovah’s Witness doctrinal periodical named after its governing body, the transplantation of human tissue from one human to another human is, “a matter for conscientious decision by each one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”1 Although Watchtower magazine reports that, “Some Christians might feel that taking into their bodies any tissue or body part from another human is cannibalistic,”2 they concede that, “It may be argued, that organ transplants are different from cannibalism since the ‘donor’ is not killed to supply food.”3 Having weighed these arguments, Watchtower gives the reader its decision:
“While the Bible specifically forbids consuming blood, there is no Biblical command pointedly forbidding the taking in of other human tissue. For this reason, each individual faced with making a decision on this matter should carefully and prayerfully weigh matters and then decide conscientiously what he or she could or could not do before God. It is a matter for personal decision. Gal. 6:5 The congregation judicial committee would not take disciplinary action if someone accepted an organ transplant.”4
This is a very different stance from the Watchtower‘s position in 1967, which was emphatically negative:
“When men of science conclude that this normal process will no longer work and they suggest removing the organ and replacing it directly with an organ from another human, this is simply a shortcut. Those who submit to such operations are thus living off the flesh of another human. That is cannibalistic. However, in allowing man to eat animal flesh Jehovah God did not grant permission for humans to try to perpetuate their lives by cannibalistically taking into their bodies human flesh, whether chewed or in the form of whole organs or body parts taken from others.”5
We should not be surprised that the teachings of the Watchtower regarding organ transplantation sound so different just a few years apart. It is not the first such change. In fact it has a precedent in the Watchtower understanding of vaccinations. Originally the Society taught that, “Vaccination is a direct violation of the everlasting covenant that God made with Noah after the flood. Vaccination has never saved a human life. It does not prevent small pox.”6
Thirty-four years later they reversed their view completely and taught,
“Use of serum can often be avoided by being inoculated with a vaccine well in advance of trouble. There can be little doubt that vaccinations appear to have caused a marked decrease in the number of people contracting certain contagious diseases.”7
It seems the Watchtower is not yet finished vacillating on medical issues, particularly in light of their teaching regarding the receiving of blood fractions.
The four primary components of blood are white blood cells, red blood cells, plasma, and platelets. These components can be broken down into fractions that are used for a variety of medical problems.
“Plasma separated from the blood of Red Cross volunteer donors is fractionated and processed into various derivatives. Fractionation involves running the plasma through a series of manufacturing steps that separates out various fractions, including Factors VIII and IX, which are used to treat hemophilia patients, immune globulin intravenous (IVIG), which is used to treat primary immune deficiency; albumin, which is often used to treat burn victims; and dozens of other fractions that have therapeutic value for patients in need.”8
Initially, a 1958 Watchtower stated that one could receive blood serums when injected in the form of an inoculation:
“The injection of antibodies into the blood in a vehicle of blood serum or the use of blood fractions to create such antibodies is not the same as taking blood, either by mouth or by transfusion, as a nutrient to build up the body's vital forces. While God did not intend for man to contaminate his blood stream by vaccines, serums or blood fractions, doing so does not seem to be included in God's expressed will forbidding blood as food. It would therefore be a matter of individual judgment whether one accepted such types of medication or not.”9
However, a few years later the Watchtower warned against receiving anything derived from blood in medical treatments:
“But regardless of whether it is whole blood or a blood fraction, whether it is blood taken from one’s own body or that taken from someone else, whether it is administered as a transfusion or as an injection, the divine law applies. God has not given man blood to use as he might use other substances; he requires respect for the sanctity of blood.”10
“…for it is not just whole blood but anything that is derived from blood and used to sustain life or strengthen one that comes under this principle.”11
In 1974, the Watchtower seemed less certain as what to do with some parts of blood:
“What, then, of the use of a serum containing only a minute fraction of blood and employed to supply an auxiliary defense against some infection and not employed to perform the life-sustaining function that blood normally carries out? We believe that here the conscience of each Christian must decide. Some may feel that accepting such a serum does not constitute an act of disrespect for the sacredness of life and of God as the life Source, that it does not constitute a flouting of God's expressed will concerning the use of blood to feed the body. On the other hand, the conscience of others may call on them to reject all such serums. Each must answer to God as his or her judge with regard to the reason for one's conscientious decision.”12
In the year 2000 the Watchtower still seemed undecided as to the morality of blood fractions: “Should Christians accept these fractions in medical treatment? We cannot say. The Bible does not give details, so a Christian must make his own conscientious decision before God.”13
It seems that the decision by a Jehovah’s Witnesses to receive blood fractions would depend on which issue of Watchtower is read.
Also of interest is the Watchtower’s disapproval of preoperative autologous blood donations. This is when a patient has some of his own blood removed and stored, then returned to him in a few weeks during a surgical procedure. In 2000, Watchtower stated, “such collecting, storing, and transfusing of blood directly contradicts what is said in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Blood is not to be stored; it is to be poured out—returned to God, as it were.”14
Yet when that same blood is removed, fractionated, mixed with medication and then returned to the person’s body, Watchtower states in the very same issue that each person must decide for himself what he will do!15
One might ask why some issues of Watchtower allow blood fractions but not whole blood or its primary components. To justify the use of blood fractions the Watchtower states,
“Separately, as a fetus’ red cells complete their normal life span, their oxygen-carrying portion is processed. Some of it becomes bilirubin, which crosses the placenta to the mother and is eliminated with her body wastes. Some Christians may conclude that since blood fractions can pass to another person in this natural setting, they could accept a blood fraction derived from blood plasma or cells.”16
Therefore, the reason that the Watchtower does not forbid the use of blood fractions is that studies have shown that blood fractions cross the placental barrier and move between body of the mother and the unborn child.
But blood fractions are not the only components of blood to pass the placental barrier:
“The failure of the placenta to maintain absolute integrity of the fetal and maternal circulations is documented by the findings of numerous studies of the passage of cells between mother and fetus in both directions… Leukocytes bearing a Y chromosome have been identified in blood of women for up to 5 years after giving birth to a son (Ciaranfi and colleagues, 1977). Desai and Creger (1963) labeled maternal leukocytes and platelets with atabrine and found that such cells crossed the placenta from mother to fetus.”17
In this medical text, two of the primary components of blood, white blood cells (leukocytes) and platelets, are identified as having crossed the placental barrier. If a component’s ability to pass the placental barrier justifies its medical use, one must ask the Watchtower why it continues to disallow white blood cells and platelets to be transfused when they have also been shown to cross the placental barrier.
Why should we be concerned about Jehovah’s Witnesses accept or refuse blood products? As a registered nurse, I have administered blood products many times. When the patient or the patient’s family is Jehovah’s Witness, there is always resistance to receiving the blood products. It is difficult as a medical professional to see patients not receiving the best treatment. It is even more difficult as a Christian knowing that their refusal stems from fear caused by the Watchtower’s teachings.
Even more so, it is tragic when children die because of the religious fears of their parents. Perhaps the Watchtower has changed its teachings to allow blood products and organ transplants, but what great cost has already been paid? From 1961 until 1974, how many Jehovah’s Witness parents would not allow their children to be inoculated against horrible diseases, and lost them as a result? How many Jehovah’s Witness children failed to receive necessary transplants between 1967 and 1980? The Watchtower’s change is commendable, but for many, it is too late.
It is evident to anyone who will look at the facts that the Watchtower’s shifting teachings on vaccinations, organ transplants, and blood transfusions have had devastating effects for decades. Jehovah’s Witnesses must learn the truth about the Watchtower’s errors so they can seek effective medical treatment when their lives are threatened by disease or injury. But it is even more vital for Christians to understand the danger their Jehovah’s Witness relatives, friends and neighbors are in, so that they may share not only the medical truth but also the truth of the Gospel. Jehovah’s Witnesses must be shown that if the Watchtower cannot be trusted in physical matters, the organization may be equally untrustworthy in spiritual matters. Though their physical danger is great, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ spiritual danger is much more profound. As Jesus declared in Matthew 10: 28, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”