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Emerg Med J. Dec 2005; 22(12): 869–871.
PMCID: PMC1726617
Jehovah's Witnesses in the emergency department: what are their rights?
S Woolley
Bristol Royal Infirmary/Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, Bristol, UK. woolley_s/at/hotmail.com
Abstract
The Jehovah's Witnesses Society is best known to outsiders for its refusal of blood products, even when such a refusal may result in death. Since the introduction of the blood ban in 1945, Jehovah's Witness (JW) parents have fought for their rights to refuse blood on behalf of their children, based on religious beliefs and their right to raise children as they see fit. Adolescent JWs have also sought to refuse blood products based on their beliefs, regardless of the views of their parents. Adult JWs have fought to protect their autonomy when making both contemporaneous and advance treatment refusal. The refusal of blood products by JWs raises ethical and legal dilemmas that are not easily answered. Do an individual's rights (namely bodily control, right to privacy, right to decide about life/death issues, right to religious freedom) outweigh society's rights (namely the preservation of life, the prevention of suicide, the protection of innocent third parties, and the maintenance of the ethical integrity of the medical profession)? Does the right to choose outweigh the value of human life? For doctors, conflict occurs between the desire to respect patient autonomy and the need to provide good medical care. The Watchtower Society (the JW governing body) imposes a strict code of moral standards among its members, and it is unlikely that individual JWs are making truly autonomous decisions about blood transfusions. While young children and adolescents are protected by the courts and conscious adults are afforded autonomy, dilemmas still arise in the emergency situation. This article examines the rights of young children, adolescents, and adults, focusing in the latter half on adults in the emergency situation.
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