Respectful Insolence

It looks as though the Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed another life. This time, though, it wasn’t an adult, as it was recently. This time, though, through the indoctrination inherent in the Jehovah’s Witness religion and, incredibly and inexcusably, the acquiescence of our legal system to their irrational and dubious interpretation of a text written thousands of years before blood transfusion was ever contemplated, the life lost was that of an adolescent:

A 14-year-old boy who refused blood transfusions in his fight against leukemia — based on religious beliefs — died Wednesday night in Seattle, hours after a Skagit County judge affirmed his right to reject the treatment.

Dennis Lindberg, of Mount Vernon, died around 6 p.m. at Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Seattle, according to KING-5 television. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Lindberg objected to receiving blood. Doctors had said he needed it to survive his cancer treatment.

In court Wednesday, Superior Court Judge John Meyer said that Lindberg, though in the eighth grade, was old enough to know that refusing blood transfusions might amount to a “death sentence,” and that he had the right to make that decision.


I don’t know what the background of this story was, but apparently Dennis was not living with his parents, but rather with his aunt. Even more tragically, his parents disagreed with the decision not to transfuse. Some of the issues involved in this case are to me reminiscent of those that made the case of Abraham Cherrix so difficult. The difference is that at the time of his refusal of chemotherapy, Cherrix was almost 16 years old and that the court in essence ended up making a compromise in which Cherrix agreed to undergo at least some conventional therapy (i.e., radiation). True, it was inadequate therapy that has little or no hope of curing him, but at least it’s good palliation. In this case, the court in essence allowed a 14-year-old boy to commit suicide for his religion, about which representatives of his religion could only say:

After the judge’s ruling, Jim Nelson, chairman of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Seattle Hospital Liaison Committee, said Lindberg was a “very responsible young man who knows his mind and was very clear. He’s a very brave young man, and he’s standing firm for what he believes in.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible prohibits transfusions of blood, in part because blood is sacred, Nelson said.

And it doesn’t mean the faith is “antimedicine,” he added. “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a death wish. We’re not arguing a right to die.”

What a crock. That’s exactly what they are arguing, and their defense of how Nelson’s religion indoctrinated Dennis to the point where he threw away his life away for no good reason sickens me. They’re arguing in essence to allow minors to commit suicide unnecessarily for their religion. I’ve discussed the specific Biblical passages that Jehovah’s Witnesses use to justify their irrational refusal of life-saving transfusions. For adults, I support that right as part and parcel of freedom of religion. I may consider refusing transfusions based on a tortured interpretation of a few lines of scripture to be the height of irrationality, but adults have the right to be irrational in making their health care choices. When it comes to children, I’m much less tolerant.

Even so, I do understand why the issues become more difficult as children become adolescents, and the article is surprisingly good in discussing them:

Years ago, courts routinely supported transfusions of children against the wishes of parents, Diekema said. While adults have the right to refuse any medical treatment, the courts ruled, that right doesn’t extend to their children.

“The principle there is that parents can make martyrs of themselves, but they can’t make martyrs of their children,” Diekema said.

With an adolescent, the situation is much more complex, he said. “We all know that 14-year-olds change their minds; they become adults, and they have completely different belief systems. And that makes you nervous.”

At the same time, 14-year-olds can have an “adultlike” decision-making process. And when the transfusion isn’t a one-time emergency procedure but a long-term treatment, there’s another complexity, Diekema said.

“Then the issue is: How can we effectively treat a kid when he’s not going to cooperate?”

How indeed?

That was an issue that I appreciated in the cases of Abraham Cherrix and Katie Wernecke, two minors who with their parents refused evidence-based therapy, particularly for Abraham, who was much older than Katie. Moreover, in the case of someone like Dennis, indoctrinated by his religion to view transfusion as a tool of the devil, the likelihood of serious physical resistance would probably be much higher. Fundamentalist religion, as we all know, is one of the most powerful motivators known to man. After all, it’s the same force that leads young people to throw their lives away murdering scores of innocents by strapping bombs to their bodies or flying jetliners into skyscrapers. Physical resistance was not a concern in Dennis’ specific case, given that he was reportedly in a coma, but it is an important issue in the general case of what to do about adolescents who refuse a life-saving medical intervention like transfusion because of their religion. On the other hand, I think that the mother of one of Dennis’ friends probably nailed it:

Several friends of Lindberg and of his parents attended Wednesday’s hearing, and some ran out crying when the judge announced his decision.

“Dennis does present himself as a very mature man. But he really is just a child trying to please the adults around him,” said Jan Curry, whose daughter, Morgan, is his friend.

Dennis’ death is all the more tragic because childhood leukemia is a highly treatable disease. Dennis probably had a greater than 70% chance of long term survival with proper therapy, including transfusions. The problem is, to achieve that survival rate, transfusion is often required to tide the patient over until his bone marrow recovers from the suppression caused by chemotherapy. In the end, there probably wasn’t much that anyone could have done to save Dennis. His indoctrination into a religion that applauds his utterly pointless death as being evidence of his great faith guaranteed that long before Dennis ever fell ill.

Comments

  1. #1 Iskra
    November 30, 2007

    I wish I believed this was for some good. Poor young man, I hope he is right and I’m wrong.

  2. #2 Danny Haszard
    November 30, 2007

    Jehovah’s Witnesses elders will investigate and disfellowship any Jehovah Witness who takes a blood transfusion,to say the issue is a ‘personal conscience matter’ is subterfuge to keep the Watchtower out of lawsuits.

    Many Jehovah’s Witnesses men,women and children die every year worldwide due to blood transfusion ban.Rank & file Jehovah’s Witness are indoctrinated to be scared to death of blood.

    FYI
    1) JW’s DO USE many parts aka ‘fractions’ aka components of blood,so if it’s ‘sacred’ to God why the hypocritical contradiction flip-flop?

    2) They USE blood collections that are donated by Red cross and others but don’t donate back,more hypocrisy.

    3) The Watchtower promotes and praises bloodless elective surgeries,this is a great advancement indeed.BUT it’s no good to me if I am bleeding to death from a car crash and lose half my blood volume and need EMERGENCY blood transfusion.

    Know this,the reason that JW refuse blood is because of their spin on the 3000 year old Biblical old testament,modern medicine will eventually make blood donations and transfusions a thing of the past.When this technology happens it won’t vindicate the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the deaths that have occured so far.
    The Watchtower’s rules against blood transfusions will eventually be abolished (very gradually to reduce wrongful death lawsuit liability) even now most of the blood ‘components’ are allowed.
    In 20 years there will be artificial blood and the Red Cross will go on with other noble deeds.

    None of these changes will absolve the Watchtower leaders or vindicate their twisted doctrines
    Are there dangers from blood?There are over 500 aspirin deaths in USA yearly.

    Danny Haszard born 1957 3rd generation Jehovah’s Witness

  3. #3 Flaky
    November 30, 2007

    Why was the kid given any treatment at all, if it was known that transfusions were required and he’d refuse them? There are patients who don’t have a death wish for whom the resources would’ve been better allocated. Besides, the Bible clearly says that all you need is prayer to be healed, so what are jehovas doing at hospitals anyways?
    Of course it’s sad that the kid might’ve grown up to be a perfectly sane adult, hadn’t he thrown away his life like this.

  4. #4 smurfy
    November 30, 2007

    How utterly ridiculous. What a waste of resources, energy and money. All of the TIME that could have been spent administering help to those who would actually accept it, instead was wasted in “litigating” and being “sensitive” to these people. Why are public resources being wasted like this!!! People who have extreme religious beliefs should set up and run their own services – hospitals, for example – so they don’t impose their ridiculous notions on everyone else. You want to die, fine, go for it, but not on my watch and under my care – go to someone else to help you perform you final act of martyrdom.

  5. #5 student_b
    November 30, 2007

    Flaky and smurfy, I would agree with you if it were about an adult, but we’re a speaking about a child. May someone be 14 or 16, he’s still a child that needs protection from such sick people like his aunt.

    To paraphrase Dakwings: “Indoctrinating children with religion is child abuse.” Here more then most, but holds true for most others too.

  6. #6 Wes
    November 30, 2007

    It’s sad to see people putting more value on vacuous abstractions than on actual human life. Too often, religions degenerated into an inverted morality where the ideas themselves take on a greater moral status than the people who hold them. Any time that happens, people are going to suffer, whether it’s Catholics in Africa contracting AIDS because the priest says condoms are evil, or potential medical treatments from stem cell research are delayed because of fuzzy-minded Christian notions of “ensoulment”.

    One advantage an atheistic or humanist ethic has over a religion-based ethic is that a humanist is in a much better position to alter his ideas in response to changing human circumstances, whereas such altering of dogmas for a religion creates all kinds of theological problems. It’s difficult to maintain the claim that one’s moral code is eternal and absolute when one is constantly having to revise it when new evidence comes in.

  7. #7 Orac
    November 30, 2007

    Why was the kid given any treatment at all, if it was known that transfusions were required and he’d refuse them?

    Transfusions aren’t always required, although quite frequently they are.

  8. #8 Niobe
    November 30, 2007

    Sadly, some people are going to read this and say “he needed blood transfusion because of treatment -> see chemo is POISON”

  9. #9 Jason Failes
    November 30, 2007

    When adults do this, it’s just natural (self-)selection.
    When it happens to kids, it’s just sad.

    I’m just glad they’re not stresing Mark 16:15-19, or we’d have dying teenage true believers refusing to get their stomach pumped of the bleach they swallowed every day.

  10. #10 vlad
    November 30, 2007

    “see chemo is POISON” No one debates that the purpose of chemo is to poison the body. However when used properly the poison kills the rapidly reproducing cancer cells and leaves most cell intact. The exception to this is hair, marrow, stomach lining and a few others. The cancer is usually reproducing faster then the bodies normal cells thus they absorb more of the “POISON” and die first.

    Or would you recommend that energy healing crap that I keep hearing about. If any of the shit worked you would see lots of it on the news. No, don’t tell me it’s being suppressed, right?

  11. #11 Orac
    November 30, 2007

    Or would you recommend that energy healing crap that I keep hearing about. If any of the shit worked you would see lots of it on the news.

    Niobe wasn’t advocating the view that “chemo is poison.” You sound as though you think the comment was an endorsement of that view.

  12. #12 Kelly
    November 30, 2007

    In reaction to
    “apparently Dennis was not living with his parents, but rather with his aunt. Even more tragically, his parents disagreed with the decision not to transfuse.”

    I have to wonder if the parents were non custodial — after all can’t parents of a 14 yo override a 14 yo’s decision?

  13. #13 DLC
    November 30, 2007

    Legally whoever fed this boy that diet of crap should be charged with criminally negligent homicide. No religious belief is allowed to kill people in this country and get away with it. Unfortunately, no prosecutor is going to touch this issue, but it seems to me that if you fill up somebody’s head with bogus ideas and then they die from practicing those ideas, you should be held civilly and or criminally liable.

  14. #14 Brandon
    November 30, 2007

    Orac, thank you for your mature discussion of this issue. Everybody is shaken up about this child’s death, athiest or not. You handled it a lot better than another Scienceblog which I won’t name.

    I once sat in on a sermon regarding these kinds of issues. (I’m Jewish but some churches around here have get-togethers that discuss general faith, so sometimes I attend) The minister explained that faith healing was simply ridiculous, even in the context of religion.

    Nobody expects God to magically fill their stomachs or put up a force field to keep out the rain, otherwise all the fundamentalists would be homeless and starving to death. If you believe God is going to cure you, then He’s going to do it by granting access to medical care. It is the height of arrogance to believe that God is going to break the laws of nature and perform a miracle just for you and nobody else.

    Then again, I have never met a Jehova’s witness who wasn’t both arrogant and divorced from logic. Please correct me if I’m wrong here, I’m not denying the existence of moderate Jehova’s witnesses, but I’ve never heard of any either.

    I guess my point is, please don’t get the impression that all religious people are like this. Faith healing is up there on the list of worst ideas ever produced by religion, and it is simply sickening that it’s covered under the Establishment Clause.

  15. #15 MartinM
    November 30, 2007

    The minister explained that faith healing was simply ridiculous, even in the context of religion.

    But, unless I’ve missed part of the story, this child did not die because he believed that God was going to heal him. He died because he believed that the treatment offered to him was unacceptable, whether God was going to heal him or not.

  16. #16 HCN
    November 30, 2007

    Kelly asked “I have to wonder if the parents were non custodial — after all can’t parents of a 14 yo override a 14 yo’s decision?”

    Explained here:
    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/341458_leukemia29.html

    It has to do with his parents abusing drugs. The boy was diagnosed less than 4 weeks before he died, and the time it took to override his decision may have been affected by both his parents living in Idaho and the lack of time.

  17. #17 khan
    November 30, 2007

    So, do JWs keep kosher?

    And can someone tell me what the biblical penalty is for eating blood? (Hint: it’s minor).

  18. #18 Brandon
    November 30, 2007

    You’re right, MartinM, my mistake. But I think my general point still stands.

  19. #19 Evinfuilt
    November 30, 2007

    Know this,the reason that JW refuse blood is because of their spin on the 3000 year old Biblical old testament,modern medicine will eventually make blood donations and transfusions a thing of the past.When this technology happens it won’t vindicate the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the deaths that have occured so far.

    It won’t vindicate them in reality-land.

    But to them, they will say they were right all along and God has proven it so, the rest of us unbelievers shall burn in Hell for not listening to them.

    I think that’s a pretty safe bet, after all Bush is taking sole credit for the stem cell discovery last week (no explanation needed on the absurdity of that.)

  20. #20 vlad
    November 30, 2007

    Niobe: sorry misunderstood the post.

  21. #21 Grieve
    November 30, 2007

    Child worship?

    Each of these cases for minors is taken ad hoc. If the judge decided he was old enough to make the decision to refuse treatment then what is the problem?

  22. #22 One Brow
    December 1, 2007

    “Then again, I have never met a Jehova’s witness who wasn’t both arrogant and divorced from logic. Please correct me if I’m wrong here, I’m not denying the existence of moderate Jehova’s witnesses, but I’ve never heard of any either.”

    One of my very good friends from college got baptised, and I nearly joined myself. We both studied under an automotive engineer near Dayton, Ohio, a reasonable and pleasant man. I still get together with my friend occasionally for an evening of games.

    HOweve, the restrictions in the life of a typical JW are probably slightly greater than that for a member of the Armed Forces, and you get neither pay nor honor from most of society. It’s not easy, and not conducive to moderation.

  23. #23 Felix Kasza
    December 1, 2007

    At the age of 14, the boy presumably had not yet fathered children.

    Think of it as evolution in action.

    Cheers,
    Felix.

  24. #24 bc
    December 1, 2007

    I am not JW, and think that many of their tenets are odd. However, most of you are looking at this in a certain way because of your bias against religion.

    Had Dennis declined a treatment because it had been tested on animals and he found that to be morally repulsive, would you still find this so wrong?

    Had transfusion been forced on Dennis, and been successful, how would Dennis deal with his new transfused status? Wouldn’t this be worse for him?

    bc

  25. #25 Orac
    December 1, 2007

    Had Dennis declined a treatment because it had been tested on animals and he found that to be morally repulsive, would you still find this so wrong?

    Yes.

    It would be just as dumb a reason to die.

  26. #26 Phledge
    December 2, 2007

    I support bc’s comments and questions, especially regarding his outcome were he to have received this treatment. If you and yours truly feel compelled to abstain from the recommended course of action because of a deep-seated religious fear (which by definition is irrational but powerful nonetheless), what misery would you endure at the hands of those who seek to override your belief system? At this point, would death have been more desirable for this person (either the child specifically or his legal custodian) than life? There are some things worse than death. Is there anyone among you that have ever refused a treatment for any reason? Is there any point at which you would endorse such a decision? It saddens me that this young man died, and certainly I cannot understand this particular rationale (if that’s what you want to call it), but part of the dignity of medicine is to honor the patient’s concept of quality of life even as it defies our comprehension. Tell me how forcing someone to accept survival will bless them with life.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not JW either. But there is more to most lives than the fact of science and the fiction of spirit. Try to envision a life filled with both.

    Respectfully,

    Phledge

  27. #27 Robin Levett
    December 2, 2007

    @bc

    Had transfusion been forced on Dennis, and been successful, how would Dennis deal with his new transfused status? Wouldn’t this be worse for him?

    Would he really have found it easier to deal with the alternative status, the one advocated by the Witnesses?

  28. #28 Melanie
    January 29, 2008

    Sorry, I know it’s late, but while doing a search I came across this blog and as a former Jehovah’s witness, had to comment. When you have never been a Jehovah’s Witnesses, you do not understand what goes on inside the JW organization.
    Keep in mind, having an association with a JW is not enough to fully comprehend the dangers of this cult. To say you are familiar with this religion because you have a family member who is one, or know someone at work who is a Jehovah’s witness is like saying since your brother is a doctor, you can perform open heart surgery

    When a JW says they refuse blood based on religious beliefs, you believe the right thing to do is respect their religious belief and honor their request.

    When you are confronted with a mature teenaged JW who sounds so convincing in his convictions and presents intelligent arguments as to why he refuses blood you feel you should respect his right to religious freedom. You believe this is his choice to make.

    While I understand the medical communities’ dilemma in going against what they believe is a person’s religious beliefs, they must understand that Jehovah’s witness children are never given a choice as to whether they want to follow this faith. The decision to refuse blood transfusions is made by the leaders of this cult and every member is mandated to comply or face ex-communication.

    Every member goes through weekly practice sessions where they are taught to parrot out arguments as to why they refuse blood transfusions, arguments that include cherry picked information from the medical field that support their position. Members are taught to say being given a blood transfusion is like being raped and children are coached to scream, kick and rip IVs out of their arm if blood is forced on them.

    How do I know all this? Because I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. I know how this boy was manipulated, mentally controlled and threatened by the people in this cult, because it happened to me. The constant and very real threat of being disfellowshipping is used by the leadership to keep everyone in control.

    My parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, FORCED me to go to meetings, FORCED me to go preaching door to door, and made all decisions on matters of religion for me. Whenever I questioned a practice or JW doctrine, I was told to “stop asking those questions before you get into trouble.” I was taught that refusing blood transfusions was right according to the bible, as well as being a dangerous medical practice. Being a young, impressionable youth, I believed what I was told. Even if I wanted to, how could I go against my parents, who I depended on for food and shelter? I knew if I did not obey in everything, I would be disfellowshipped, a devastating consequence which meant being cut off from all of my family and friends, as well being destroyed by God at Armageddon.

    When you are born/raised by JWs, you are never really given a choice of whether you want to be one or not. If your family is one, you HAVE to be one too, or you risk some level of shunning. Even if you never commit a sin that warrants being disfellowshipped, if you say you have decided you do not want to be a JW anymore, you will be shunned by your family and friends.

    Now, if you were to ask a Jehovah’s witness about this, or a JW child, of course they will deny it all, just as anyone who is brainwashed can not recognize when they are brainwashed. But take it from someone who lived it for 18 years, children of Jehovah’s Witness are not allowed a choice. Keep that in mind when you decided whether or not to honor that child’s “religious convictions.”

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