Religious Freedom and Dangerous Ideas

Blood TransfusionDylan Matthews wrote an interesting interview with Douglas Laycock over at Vox on Monday, Why a Pro-Same-Sex-Marriage Law Professor Supports Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law. It’s generally interesting because Laycock has a different take on the law. But I’m not especially interested in that right now. More interesting is the case of Mary Stinemetz. She was a Jehovah’s Witness in Kansas who was on Medicaid. She needed a liver transplant, but she insisted upon a bloodless liver transplant, because the JWs do not believe in blood transfusions. But no one performed that procedure in Kansas and the Medicaid program wouldn’t pay for out of state treatments. The case took two years to make its way through court, and by the time Stinemetz won, her condition was so much worse than she could no longer get the procedure and later died.

This is a tragic story. I’m no expert on bloodless transfusions, but it seems like it is the way of the future. The costs are roughly the same — maybe even less. And there are fewer post-operative complications. This is assuming, of course, that the patient isn’t anemic. The problem is that bloodless transfusions are relatively new and so they aren’t nearly as widely performed. I remember getting a terribly invasive hernia surgery about 20 years ago simply because my insurance (Kaiser) didn’t cover the more recent laparoscopic surgery. So I have a hard time seeing this as especially the fault of Kansas Medicaid.

Why JWs Refuse Blood Transfusions

The whole thing got me wondering why it is that JWs don’t believe in blood transfusions. For one thing, it seems odd that they think mixing blood is wrong but mixing organs isn’t. Not surprisingly, the justification for this makes as much sense as the justification for Christian Scientists allowing bones to be set but not cancer to be treated. Basically: nowhere in the Bible does it say that you shouldn’t take anyone’s body parts. A loophole!

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses website, there are five Bible verses that instruct them not to use this 500 year old medical technique: Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10 and 17:14; Deuteronomy 12:23; and Acts 15:28-29. Note that only one of them is from the New Testament. I always love that. When it comes to the most ridiculous beliefs, going back 2,000 years isn’t enough; they have to go back another 500 years. But okay, let’s look at these verses.

Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:14, and Deuteronomy 12:23 are all pretty much the same thing. The New American Standard Bible translates Genesis 9:4 as, “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Leviticus 17:14 is, “For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.'” And Deuteronomy 12:23 is, “Only be sure not to eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.” Clearly, these are about eating animal blood — not human blood.

Leviticus 17:10 cut off from everything else sounds like it might have something to do with human blood, “And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.” But the whole context of this section of Leviticus is about how God thinks that blood should be used for the purpose of sacrifices to him. From the context of Christians, this seems a particularly odd verse to focus on because Jesus was supposed to make such animal sacrifices unnecessary because Jesus’ blood cleansed the sins of all humanity. You know: Jesus as the “lamb of God”?

And that brings us to Acts 15:28-29. It says:

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.

Again: animal blood. And it is about sacrifice. God could not have been referring to human blood, because the whole idea of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that God doesn’t want the Israelites to sacrifice humans. So none of these Bible verses make the case against the use of human blood — especially for the purpose of preserving human lives and allowing the followers of God to “do well.”

Over at Catholic Answers, Robert Brom noted a curious inconsistency as well:

The Witnesses must avoid other problematic passages that deal with God’s prohibition of eating blood because these passages include a prohibition against eating fat. Witnesses do not believe eating fat is wrong, and would see no problem at all with someone munching on fried pork rinds (ie, deep-fried pieces of pig fat) or sitting down to dinner and enjoying a nice fatty cut of prime rib. But their vehement opposition to eating blood, when contrasted with their approval of eating fat, presents a serious problem for them. Why? Because Leviticus, the book they go to in order to substantiate their prohibition of eating (and receiving transfusions of) blood, contains, in the same passages, prohibitions against eating fat.

I understand that one could make an argument that these verses mean that God doesn’t believe in blood transfusions. But you really have to work at it. That conclusion doesn’t fall out of a serious reading of the Bible. One of the reasons we know this is because only a tiny fraction of Christians believe this. And it doesn’t include all Jehovah’s Witnesses. The church existed (although not with its current name) for roughly a century before the issue even came up — despite the fact that blood transfusions were a common medical procedure during that time. It was only in the 1940s that people in the church started to push against the idea of blood transfusions. And it was only in 1961 that it became an official “disfellowshipping offense” to knowingly get a blood transfusion. But to show just how loony this all is, the church allowed people to get transfusions for their pets until 1964!

Dangerous Idiosyncrasies

I am all for government programs making accommodations for people’s idiosyncratic beliefs — as long as their requests are not too taxing on the resources available. But there is no reason to think that such idiosyncrasies are noble. Mary Stinemetz died primarily because she had an extremely dangerous idiosyncrasy. I wish that the government had dealt better with her. But she is no different than anyone else who does things that are not medically advised. She wasn’t a victim of religious persecution.

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