Religion vs. Medicine

by Iphone_user7 on February 9, 2017 - 3:04pm

            Jehovah’s Witnesses is a sect that branches from Christianity, which has strict views regarding certain medical advances: they only accept hospital treatments that do not involve the use of blood. As a result, there have been many cases where doctors were conflicted when Jehovah’s Witnesses refused blood transfusions, with probable fatal consequences. This bears the ethical issue concerning the doctor’s response in this situation. Should the doctor remain passive and respect his patient’s religious beliefs, or should he intervene without their consent and force them to have the transfusion to prevent death? Ultimately, the latter is the more convincing course of action when considering the situation from the perspective of the teleological (utilitarian) framework. 

            This moral dilemma constitutes a choice between freedom of religion, a basic human right as stated and therefore protected by the Canadian Charter of Human Rights, and science’s ability to save lives. This also conflicts the duties of the doctor since they are not only required to respect their patients, but also to take care of them to the best of their abilities. Either way in this situation, the physician will be unable to uphold the moral responsibilities of his profession and his sworn Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

            From a utilitarian standpoint, the doctor should proceed with a blood transfusion in a life-threatening situation regardless of the patient’s religious beliefs. This ethical system, which stems from teleology, focuses on the outcome of the decision no matter the cost. This suggests that the patients’ demands are irrelevant if they jeopardize and endanger their life. This framework would also consider the impact that the patients’ death would have on their loved ones. For instance, consider a case where a Jehovah’s Witness who refused a blood treatment consequently dies during childbirth. As a result of the physician’s decision not to proceed with the transfusion, the patient will be dearly missed by family and friends, and the child will grow up motherless. Utilitarianism argues that this would be the wrong course of action since the value of the patient’s life and the effect on other people’s happiness outweigh the conflicting religious implications.  

            From the angle of virtue ethics, the “agent” (the doctor) would have to be virtuous in his decision-making process. Under this ethical framework, the physician would have to be empathetic and respectful of his patient. In this scenario, it would therefore be morally correct for the doctor to be respectful of the patient’s decision not to undergo a blood transfusion in order to be virtuous and kind, regardless of the possible fatal outcome. At the very least, it required the physician to be just, and go through the appropriate legal channels to ensure that the process is done right, however unrealistic this may be.

The most persuasive ethical framework to resolve this conflict would be from the perspective of a utilitarian, and not from virtue ethics. If a Jehovah’s Witness refuses a life-saving blood transfusion because it’s against their religion, the most convincing course of action for the physician would be to forcefully proceed with the treatment. Obviously, given the legal right of freedom of religion, this situation is very sensitive and may result in legal procedures against the doctor and the medical establishment where he works. There might also be adverse effects on the patient’s psychological health. Despite the means being rash, they justify the outcome. In the end, the life and health of the patient should trump all else. However, in order to regulate this decision process in the future, there should be laws that could allow physicians to intervene without their patients’ consent if they know and prove that it could better serve their health and save their lives.

Works Consulted:

“Health Minister Barrette says Jehovah's Witness mother knowingly refused blood transfusions”. Presse Canadienne. Oct. 21st, 2016. /news/local-news/health-minister-barrette-