Traditionally, there are few things American cherish more than the freedom of religion as embodied by the First Amendment and their families. Normally, these ideals do not conflict all that much since these work together to allow the greatest good for the greatest number. However, as aberrant theologies gain in prominence, these social pillars have the potential of increasingly coming into conflict.
As a religious sect adhering to a legalistic view of salvation, the Jehovah Witnesses believe that it is a matter of eternal importance to avoid blood transfusions at all costs, even at the price of health and life itself. It is generally accepted that parents have the right to raise their children in compliance with the beliefs of the respective family’s faith. To adherents of the Watchtower Society, this means they ought to be able to refuse medical treatment for their children requiring blood transfusions. However, as the institution charged with overseeing the physical well being of those residing within its boundaries (especially for those unable to do so for themselves), the state might have other priorities as to whether or not an ailing child receives a blood transfusion.
What makes such an example so compelling is the variety of ethical issues of the most visceral variety involved. Foremost among these is the freedom of religion.
Here in the United States, citizens are allowed to believe what they want and pretty much permitted to live according to these principles so long as they do not infringe upon the well being and liberties of others from an activist standpoint. Relatedly, it is believed parents have the right to raise their children in accord with these principles and overall children are better off under the care of parents that genuinely love them than under detached bureaucracies. That said, the state has the obligation to protect the physical well-being of those that cannot do so for themselves. Unfortunately, this may often include small children unable to defend themselves against parents that do not have their priorities in order.
Fundamental to the American conception of human rights is the phrase contained in the Declaration of Independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Without life, the other two are essentially meaningless.
As such, in most instances life must take precedence, especially in cases where the individual for whom the decision is being made is unable to make an informed one on their own. If the Jehovah Witness child was a teenager or an intelligent adolescent that refused medical treatment with the consent of the parents, the state should mind its own business and refrain from interference. It is generally considered improper to force treatment upon someone that does not want it since is their own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that is at stake. However, two year olds are unable to make such decisions on their own and it would not be right for parents on their own to deny liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a child whose life is in need of direct emergency medical intervention.
While the state has the imperative and obligation to protect the lives of its most innocent members, that does not mean its agents should eagerly rush in to break up families as is the mindset of many in so-called “child protective services” in a manner akin to Janet Reno bursting in with guns blazing into the Branch Davidian compound. Rather, the notion that one may lure more flies with sugar than vinegar may be a more appropriate strategy.
First, hospital officials should assure the parents that everything is being done to treat the child initially with procedures that do not necessarily involve a blood transfusion. Secondly, in discussions of this kind of case, Roe notes that in certain circumstances an appeal to Watchtower officials might be able to persuade them to permit the transfusion even though it is not in compliance with the sect’s normal policy (120).
Such an instance might also be better handled by the hospital chaplain or Christian acquaintances since it might make the parents even more defensive if confronted by hospital personnel or child protection bureaucrats that hand down edicts with all the compassion of the IRS or DMV. As fellow theists though of a considerably different persuasion, the chaplain or Christian friend could discuss the passages from which the prohibitions against blood transfusions are drawn and explain in a kind and understanding manner how they do not necessarily apply and how God forgives those that ask and that no deed other than the failure to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins is beyond redemption by His blood.
The bond between parent and child is strong. Under normal circumstances, a loving parent is not going to allow harm to come to that child without taking action.
However, in rare instances where the child is in danger of imminent loss of life and is not competent as to consent to their own medical treatment and parents forbid intervention on the part of physicians, authorities from the various spheres overseeing medical services may be required to use their assorted forms of influence to persuade the parents that it is in the best interests of the child to allow treatment. At first, this should be done in a friendly and conversational manner. However, if they do not relent, higher authorities such as the courts and social services may need to be consulted in a judicious manner that preserves the physical well being of the child as well as inflict minimal damage to the integrity of the parent/child relationship.
By Frederick Meekins