Rebecca Whelan adores her 13-month-old baby daughter Reese — but she would let her die before giving permission for her to have a blood transfusion.
“One day when she’s older she might look at me and ask ‘would you have done that to me?’ I would have to tell her yes.
“If she chooses not to take up my beliefs and is upset with me for that, it would be very sad — but I have to stand by my faith.”
Rebecca was born and raised a Jehovah’s Witness, the branch of Christianity which has been at the centre of controversy this week when two landmark cases came before the High Court involving pregnant women with the same conviction.
She was deeply upset by the Court’s decision to force one of the women to breach her religious beliefs and allow a potentially life-saving transfusion on her severely anaemic unborn twins.
Put in her shoes, Rebecca says that she too would prioritise her faith over the life of her child. The moment she learned she was expecting, she made an appointment with her maternity hospital, the Rotunda in Dublin, and told them categorically that she did she want her life, or that of her baby, to be saved by a blood transfusion, in the event of a medical difficulty.
Fortunately, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl just over a year ago and did not need medical intervention in the form of blood.
“When I was expecting Reese, it was the first time I was confronted with a situation where I might be asked to take blood,” she says.
“In our religion, we have very clear standards about blood, which God asks us to abstain from using. In Scripture, blood is described as a very sacred thing that should not be shared.
“Even if I was told by doctors that my refusal to take it would result in death, it would still not be an option for me. I would stick to that belief even if they told me Reese’s life was in jeopardy. I think the decision by the High Court took this week is a shame. It will be very hard for the woman involved.”
Rebecca, 33, lives with her husband Geoff in Dublin’s inner city district of Smithfield. They met in the Rathgar Kingdom Hall, the generic term given to the Jehovah’s Witness churches around the world, which today claim a congregation of almost seven million followers. The pair’s relationship developed within the confines of a chaperoned courtship, a condition of their religion’s strict rules, and last year,they had their baby girl.
“We are not martyrs or monsters,” says Rebecca. “We don’t want to let our children die. We want the very best for them like any parent. But if the crunch came and my child ended up dying because she needed a blood transfusion, I would feel I had done everything according to my faith. When we come face to face with death, is turning your back on God by violating one of his laws a good decision?
‘There are non-religious reasons for not taking blood too. Even if I wasn’t a Witness, I’d be nervous about it. In Ireland, we had a horrific situation where people caught hepatitis from contaminated blood. We hear all over Europe how there are a lot of problems with people contracting all sorts of things from blood that is not screened properly. I’ve been in hospital myself and seen bags of blood hanging in the air and it turns my stomach.”
But her belief in the immorality of blood transfusions often generates anger in those she is trying to proselytize on the streets of Dublin.
“When I go from door-to-door, I always find that blood is the thing that upsets people most. It’s the one thing they always bring up. We try to explain that modern medicine has advanced so much that there are many alternatives to blood out there.
“There are definitely ways around this but Ireland is very backward when it comes to looking at alternative treatments. In other countries, like the US and Britain, it is never an issue. My Granny who lives in England had two huge cancerous tumours removed from her bowel recently. The doctor was told there must be no blood used so he said “of course, no blood”. It just wasn’t an issue at all. They are able to use plasma expanders which refills the fluid and works just as well.
“I know a lot of non-Witnesses who don’t take blood. In the States, there are some hospitals which actually operate without blood.”
Within the Irish Jehovah’s Witness community, a number of Hospital Liaison Committees offer advice and information about doctors who are willing to consider alternatives to blood transfusion.
“That was a great help to me when I was pregnant,” says Rebecca. “I was informed as to what the alternatives were. When I was having Reese, I met with the head anaesthetist of the Rotunda Hospital and I went through the drugs and machinery that I would accept to make sure they could provide them. I would also have access to a cell-salvage machine, which takes your blood, cleans it and puts it back in your body. I always made sure my iron levels were very high and did everything I could to make the pregnancy as healthy as possible.
“If we were badly hurt in a car crash tomorrow, I carry a card that says we will not accept blood. It’s called an Advance Directive. My GP has a copy and my friends so there is no risk that we would have to accept it.”
Religious devotion led to the death of a young English Jehovah’s Witness last year. Emma Gough, 22, died after giving birth in Shrewsbury in October.
When asked twice by medical staff if she would consent to a blood transfusion in a life or death situation, she said no. A fortnight ago, an inquest heard that she had told a midwife that she was “happy to die” than have a blood transfusion, leaving her newborn twins without a mother.
“Personally, I know that is how I would feel as well,” says Rebecca. “There are men who risk their lives for their country when they go to war. To us, there is no greater thing on Earth than Jehovah and I am willing to risk my life for him.
“To us, it is about nothing more than being loyal to God. It is not an emotional decision. If the crunch came and my child ended up dying because she needed a blood transfusion, at least I would feel I had done everything according to my faith. I am also reassured that Iwould see her again.”