MONTREAL (CP) – A former Jehovah’s Witness, whose brother died after refusing blood transfusions, has collected 5,000 names on a petition which calls for doctors to be allowed to intervene medically regardless of the patient’s religious beliefs.
Jonathan Lavoie says his brother died needlessly after refusing blood transfusions while being treated for an intestinal tumour.
Jean-Claude Lavoie, 26, a devout Witness, died last December.
– Four Dangers of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization
Jonathan Lavoie, 32, says adults should be subject to the same rigorous judicial test that children go through before they can turn down a medical procedure based solely on religious beliefs.
“What I’d like to see is the laws changed so that doctors, when a person refuses a procedure for religious reasons -any religion -can still operate,” says Lavoie, who hasn’t decided when he’ll give his petition to Quebec and federal politicians.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to accept transfusions because it clashes with their interpretation of certain passages of the Bible forbidding the ingestion of blood.
There have been a number of high-profile cases where the courts have stepped in and ordered blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses children.
But adults may refuse transfusions for themselves, provided they are competent and the decision is free and informed.
Last month, Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean Bouchard ordered twin babies be given blood transfusions despite the objections of their Jehovah’s Witness parents.
Lavoie says adults should be held to the same standards.
Across Canada, there have been several documented cases involving the rights of children, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, to decline transfusions.
In British Columbia, debate brewed over the fate of sextuplets in January when four were seized by the government and administered transfusions against their parents’ wishes.
In Manitoba, a Winnipeg teenager lost her bid to avoid a transfusion when her appeal was denied in February.
And Calgary’s Lawrence Hughes is taking his fight against lawyers for the The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada to an appeals court in Alberta over the death of his 17-year-old daughter Bethany.
Hughes alleges lawyers counselled his daughter to refuse transfusions necessary to treat her for leukemia. Bethany eventually received transfusions, but died in 2002.
“There is a very strong presumption in favour of life that dominates these decisions when the child cannot decide for itself, or even when it can as a teenager,” says Margaret Somerville, a medical ethicist and professor at McGill University.
“The constitutional rights for refusing treatment are much more limited when a person is deciding for another person, especially a child who has never expressed any wishes for or against treatment, than when deciding for oneself as a competent adult on whatever basis including religious beliefs,” Somerville said.
“The latter right is almost absolute. The former is not.”
Constitutional rights lawyer Julius Grey calls the situation unfortunate.
“This is a conflict that is a fundamentally tragic one,” said Grey, who said he’s prepared to recognize the difficult position of parents, but not at the expense of a child’s right to live.
“There are two ways of looking at the world and the two clash and neither side can yield.”
In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto could briefly take custody of a premature baby who required a blood transfusion.
Even though the court agreed it had infringed the parents’ right to decide, there was no provision for a parent to deny medical treatment judged necessary by a medical professional where no alternative exists.
“These decisions are complex and must be made on a case-by-case basis,” Somerville said. “To do otherwise would be unethical.”
Jehovah’s Witness doctors have testified of bloodless medicine alternatives, but their effectiveness has been questioned.
Lavoie’s estranged father Jocelyn has said it was important to respect Jean-Claude’s decision and that alternative therapy didn’t work in his son’s case.
But Jonathan Lavoie isn’t buying it.
“I don’t find it normal that in 2007, people still die in the name of their religion,” he said. “Eventually, it was the infections that killed my brother, but the infections were because he had no white blood cells to battle the infections.”