For Rachel Underhill, a 32-year-old mother of two, the news that Emma Gough, a Jehovah’s Witness, had died last month after refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion following the difficult birth of her twins, brought back memories of her own near-death experience in the operating theatre.
Like Mrs Gough, Mrs Underhill had a traumatic labour. Mrs Underhill was also a Jehovah’s Witness and therefore bound by the movement’s strict doctrine on blood — which, as the life-force, belongs to God and is not for human use. This rules out eating meat from animals that have not been properly bled before dying and, crucially for the grieving Gough family, blood transfusions.
Unlike Mrs Gough, Mrs Underhill survived the extremely tough birth of her twins, although it was touch and go. Although Mrs Gough, 22, who died on 25 October at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, gave birth naturally, there were complications following the birth of her son and daughter, and she lost a lot of blood. Like all Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mrs Gough had signed a form when she got to hospital forbidding doctors from giving her a blood transfusion, and her medical team was forced to abide by her wishes.
Eight years on, Mrs Underhill recalled her own traumatic experience. “I went into premature labour… [and] was told I would need an emergency Caesarean but it wasn’t until very late that night that my consultant noticed I was a Jehovah’s Witness and what that meant. I’d grown up as one, so even as a child I’d known that I wasn’t allowed a blood transfusion. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d ever need one,” she said.
“When I was in labour… no way was I in any physical or emotional state to say that I might have wanted a transfusion… I’d have been cast out of the religion, which at that point was the last thing I wanted. I needed the network that being a Jehovah’s Witness gave you. Plus it’s a very controlling religion, and I didn’t even think of challenging it.”
She eventually cut her ties with the church. This means she is now free to speak out on issues such as blood transfusions. “I think that in extreme cases, doctors should be able to override a Jehovah’s Witness’s wishes,” she added.
The doctrine has not attained universal acceptance among the movement’s six million-plus followers around the world. In 1982, a study of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation showed 12 per cent were willing to accept transfusion therapy. Another study indicated a similar percentage willing to accept blood transfusions for their children.
For those Jehovah’s Witnesses out there struggling with the religion’s heavy-handed approach to life, Mrs Underhill offers help. She has set up a website, www.exjw-reunited.com, which she hopes will offer sceptics a support network. Of the 17 women who die annually in childbirth, maybe the next one won’t be a Jehovah’s Witness.