A 16-year-old male student, identified only by his family name Yoon, died of leukemia in April while refusing a blood transfusion that possibly could have saved his life.
It’s not the first case of its kind nor the last because Yoon was a member of the Jehovah’s Witness faith which follows strict beliefs that blood is a sacred source of life not to be misused or tampered with under any circumstances.
Medical groups and others express concern about Jehovah’s Witness members who refuse possible life-saving treatment and the courts have dealt with individual cases, but neither the government nor lawmakers have a plan to deal with issue.
Yoon’s leukemia was believed cured in 2003, but it reoccurred when he was studying in Canada in February.
“I repeatedly suggested transfusions to Yoon and his parents, but they didn’t accept it,” his physician, Kim Jun-hui, at the Inje University Paik Hospital, central Seoul, said. “I feel sorry because there is a high possibility that leukemia, when found at an early stage, can be completely cured with transfusions.”
The incident has raised the question in some circles whether parents have the right to deny their children blood transfusions that go against their religious beliefs even when life is at stake. In Korea, children do not come of age until they reach 20, and parents have full control until then.
There are some 90,000 Jehovah’s Witness members in Korea and hospitals estimate there are about 100 cases of per month of treatment at bloodless medical treatment facilities.
There is little movement here, however, on the issue since doctors usually go along with the decision of parents who reject transfusion for a child.
In many other countries doctors push for treatment which they think is necessary and the issue has landed before the courts. For example, a Canadian court last month ruled doctors could force a 14-year-old Jehovah’s Witness to undergo transfusion despite her protests if they deemed it medically necessary.
There has been only related ruling in a Korean court. In 1980 the mother of a 10-year-old girl was imprisoned for rejecting blood transfusions for her daughter, who died from intestinal hemorrhaging.
“Even though she is a mother, she does not have rights to refuse transfusion which a doctor suggested and to lead her (daughter) to die without getting necessary medical treatment,” the written judgment said.
Lawyer Kang Ji-won said the courts should cut across the parental rights of Jehovah’s Witness members in urgent cases since children can be misled by their parents.
“At their age, their religious belief is easily hammered (into them) by their parents. It may not be their real intention,” said Kang, a well-known juvenile advocate.
But believers say it is hard to find the third person who can take responsibility of the child.
“Who’s going to take accountability if the child is dead even after undergoing a transfusion? A doctor? A judge?” Choi Yong-muk, a Jehovah’s Witness who deals with the faith’s medical affairs here, asked rhetorically.
“It is easy to say that a third party should represent the endangered child, but there is no alternative,” said Choi, president of a high-profile English home schooling company.
Adherents also say they have obligations to protect their children not only physically but also spiritually.
“Parents should lead their children in a good direction when they have little ability to make a decision,” said Im Jong-in, a lawyer who is a believer.
“Let’s suppose our child goes through a transfusion. What if the child grows up and deeply regrets the experience which contradicts with his belief?”
But many people outside the faith feel the right to live transcends religious belief.
“In the United States, even religious freedom of minors is restricted when their life is endangered,” said Kim Chong-suh, a professor of religious studies at Seoul National University.
Kim Jong-seo, a 25-year-old university student, said, “(Jehovah’s) Witnesses say human rights and their conscience are precious and thus reject obeying the draft, but I can’t understand why they neglect the right to live.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse this nation’s mandatory military service, citing their religious precept that forbids taking up weapons. Instead they choose to stay in jail for more than one year and face disadvantages in seeking jobs.
Members say not accepting blood transfusions does not always mean a child is going to die, noting there are alternatives to transfusions. There is bloodless medical treatment which takes aggressive steps to stop bleeding and uses liquid solutions to replace lost blood.
Choi cited medical journals which demonstrate bloodless treatments are effective. “People think we’re fanatic because we refuse transfusion. Some even think we lead our children to die a martyr’s death. But in the eyes of progressive doctors, transfusion is a crazy thing.”
About 20 hospitals nationwide have bloodless medical treatment facilities, with patients who are mainly Jehovah’s Witnesses in most cases.
The facilities are increasingly popular with the non-Witness public which wishes to avoid the use of donor blood to minimize the risk of blood-borne infections, hospital officials said.
Choi said he obtained signatures from more than 5,000 doctors from general hospitals saying they can perform surgery without blood transfusions.
Kim Mun-seol, chief doctor at the bloodless surgery center at Baik Hospital, said, “I will not let my child have a transfusion. It is no good having another person’s blood.” Kim is not a Jehovah’s Witness.
But many medical experts say bloodless medical treatment cannot fully take the place of a transfusion.
“Bloodless transfusion works in some cases, but people need to undergo surgery with blood transfusion when they’re bleeding to death and in other cases,” said anatomical pathologist Nam Hae-joo, a Catholic. “They just say it to rationalize their religious precept.”
Nam said, however, that what a doctor can do is very limited and a broad discussion on the pros and cons is needed.