Evolution of the Watchtower Blood Policy

by Zack Daniels

In order to understand how the Society’s objections to transfusion medicine were originally conceived and formulated, it must first be realized that mankind has not always understood just exactly what part blood played in sustaining the life of the body. A very basic misconception that existed from the time of Claudius Galen in the 2nd century clear up to the late 19th century was the belief that the blood was ultimately the food upon which the body internally sustained itself. This misunderstanding can be found here and there in the literature of the time period and even beyond because it continued to be a “laymen’s misconception” even into the 20th century. As an example of how this misconception influenced the thinking of even intelligent well-educated people in times past, consider this quote from the 1898 novel War Of The Worlds:

“Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians….They did not eat, much less digest. Instead they took the fresh living blood of other creatures and injected it into their own veins.”

H. G. Well’s fanciful speculation as to how a highly evolved race might sustain themselves reflects the complete misunderstanding that existed as to just exactly what role blood played in nourishing the body. When blood is viewed in this light, it is perfectly understandable why the Society would have objected on scriptural grounds to the practice of blood transfusion, because if blood is ultimately the food upon which our bodies are sustained, then receiving the blood of someone else would in a very real sense constitute a “feeding” upon the blood of another creature. The link between the eating of blood and the transfusion of blood was first made in the July 1, 1945 issue of The Watchtower, pages 200,201 which said:

“Among the barbarous and fierce, savage nations, such as the Scythians, Tartars, desert Arabs, Scandinavians, etc., who lived most on animal blood, there were some even who drank the blood of their enemies after making cups of their skulls. And quite interestingly, in our consultation of various works on the subject of blood, this related item came to light on page 113, column one, of Volume 4 of The Encyclopedia Americana, Revised Edition of 1929:

“Transfusion of blood dates as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians. The earliest reported case is that practiced on Pope Innocent VIII in 1492. The operation cost the lives of three youths and the Pontiff’s life was not saved. Great strides in the research and practice of transfusion on animals were made after Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in the middle of the 17th century. Physicians in Germany, England and France were especially active in the work of blood transfusion after this discovery. They reasoned that as the blood is the principal medium by which the body is nourished, transfusion, therefore, is a quicker and shorter road to feed an ill-nourished body than eating food which turns to blood after several changes. So transfusion was thought of not only as a cure, but also a rejuvenator.”

It should be noted that the quote from the 1929 Encyclopedia Americana which was reproduced in The Watchtower presented this information not as current thinking in the field of medicine, but as the opinions of researchers in the 17th century. Certainly by 1945, it was known that this viewpoint was inaccurate. Why this fact would have been overlooked is hard to say today, but the fact that we are dealing with the perceptions of individuals whose ideas and personal views had probably been formed many years even before 1945 is undoubtedly a factor. In the next five years, this error was further compounded as the Society began to authoritatively teach that there was no physical difference whatsoever between the transfusion of a blood product and the eating of whole blood.

By the year 1950, this view had solidified to the point where the Society was referring to both as simply the “transfer” of blood (see for example W50 pp. 80 & 143) This viewpoint was crystal clear in explanations such as the one that appeared in the July 1, 1951 issue of The Watchtower on page 415:

A patient in the hospital may be fed through the mouth, through the nose, or through the veins. When sugar solutions are given intravenously, it is called intravenous feeding. So the hospital’s own terminology recognizes as feeding the process of putting nutrition into one’s system via the veins. Hence the attendant administering the transfusion is feeding the patient blood through the veins, and the patient receiving it is eating it through his veins.

It is obvious from these statements that in the Society’s view, blood was ‘nutrition’ and a transfusion was an ‘intravenous feeding’ not materially different in nature than the administration of Dextran. Ten years later, the Society was still laboring under this same misconception. For example, the September 15, 1961 issue of The Watchtower on page 558 attempted to substantiate the validity of this viewpoint with a slightly different explanation:

It is of no consequence that the blood is taken into the body through the veins instead of the mouth. Nor does the claim by some that it is not the same as intravenous feeding carry weight. The fact is that it nourishes or sustains the life of the body. In harmony with this is a statement in the book Hemorrhage and Transfusion, by George W. Crile, A.M., M.D., who quotes a letter from Denys, French physician and early researcher in the field of transfusions. It says: “In performing transfusion it is nothing else than nourishing by a shorter road than ordinary—that is to say, placing in the veins blood all made in place of taking food which only turns to blood after several changes.”

Here we see the same misconception about blood repeated again; that food was converted into blood and that blood itself was what actually nourished the body. A virtually identical quote appeared on page 14 of the booklet “Blood, Medicine and the Law of God.” (1961)

What the Society didn’t bother to tell anyone in either of these quotes however was that the book Hemorrhage and Transfusion: An Experimental and Clinical Research had been published in 1909 and could not by any stretch of the imagination have been considered an authoritative medical text 52 years later.

Further, the Society did not inform anyone that Jean Babtiste Denys had done his research in the 1600’s and had been dead for 257 years by 1961. Much more disturbing than these two lapses however is the way in which this quote deliberately gives the incorrect impression that the viewpoint being promoted was one which had the support of a semi-modern medical authority, George W. Crile himself. This is apparent from the study question for this paragraph which asked: What shows that the transfusing of blood is a “feeding” on blood?

What follows however, is the complete quote from the original book as it appears in Chapter VII “A Brief History Of Transfusion.”

“In the same year Denys of Montpellier, wrote concerning experiments which he performed on animals. He followed Lower’s method in a general way except that he did not withdraw enough blood from the donor to cause death. He also tried transfusion from three calves to three dogs with success in each case. In a letter to M. de Montmore he describes two transfusions which he made on patients. His idea was that “In practicing transfusion one can only imitate the example of nature which, in order to nourish the fetus in the uterus of the mother, makes a continuous transfusion of the blood of the mother into the body of the infant through the umbilical vein. In performing transfusion it is nothing else than nourishing by a shorter road than ordinary–that is to say, placing in the veins blood all made in place of taking food which only turns to blood after several changes” (Hemorrhage and Transfusion: An Experimental and Clinical Research pp. 153, 154)

When viewed in its proper context, it is obvious that Crile was simply providing a historical narrative of the accidents, ignorance, and mistakes that befell the early researchers in this field and not seriously agreeing with the humorous level of ignorance which he had found in a 252 year old (in 1909) research paper. Further, no one in their right mind even in 1909, let alone 1961, would have seriously believed Deny’s own reason for making that statement—-that the blood of the mother was continuously transfused into the body of the infant. (In an incredible twist of irony, today, the maternal/fetal relationship is used by WT writers as a basis for disallowing certain blood components.)

Even if we are to discount the element of dishonesty which was beginning to manifest itself in the treatment of this subject, we are still left with a clear example of a gross misunderstanding of basic biology on the part of the Society. For anyone in 1961 with even a high school education to claim that the body was directly nourished by the blood was absurd. Your blood carries nourishment to the cells of your body. This is done by the blood plasma and its solutes. Each and every cell of your body is nourished on an individual basis by being in direct contact with the blood stream. Your digestive system breaks the food you eat down into soluble materials that can diffuse into the plasma, namely amino acids, simple sugars, fatty acids, trace elements (vitamins and minerals) and water.

The plasma, being mostly water itself, functions simply as the means of conveyance, in a manner analogous to the way your hand is the means of conveyance whereby nourishment is carried to your mouth. You don’t bite the fingers off of your hand and swallow them when you eat, and the individual cells of your body do not devour your blood as it goes by and this was certainly known in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Despite this though, the Society’s statements on the blood issue during this time period all reflected this mistaken idea. The 1953 edition of the publication “Make Sure Of All Things” on page 47 gave this definition of blood transfusion:

“Transferring blood from the veins or arteries of one person to another. As in intravenous feeding, it is A feeding on blood. An unscriptural practice.”

Eventually though, the organization began to realize that this view was seriously in error. In the next rationale, an attempt was made to address this problem by providing a more up-to-date explanation as to why it was felt that a transfusion would constitute a “feeding” upon blood. This appeared in the December 1, 1967 issue of The Watchtower on page 720, one month after the new understanding prohibiting organ transplants was introduced:

In a further argument for transfusion, it is claimed that what is transfused is merely a vehicle to convey food directly to the human body, and that the body does not feed on the vehicle itself. We therefore ask the question: After the transfused vehicular blood has released its oxygen and food elements to the body tissues of the patient, is this vehicular blood extracted from the patient’s body and transfused back into the body of the blood donor? This would be quite embarrassing and impossible, especially where the blood donor or donors are not known or if the blood has been taken from a newly dead cadaver. So the transfused vehicular material is left in the patient’s body. What then? Well, in the course of the years during which the human body renews itself into a new body, this vehicular blood is used or consumed by the patient’s body, the same as any other transplant of an organ. In what way, then, does this outworking of things differ essentially from feeding on the transfused blood? The results are the same: the patient’s body does sustain itself by transfused stuff.

Please note that the Society here was killing two birds with one stone as it were by simultaneously explaining their objections to organ transplants and blood transfusions using the exact same explanation for both. Donated organs taken into the body via transplant as well as donated blood taken into the body via transfusion were both viewed as being “eaten” in principle for the same reason.

Although this explanation was sounder from a medical and biological standpoint, it was inconsistent in a ‘real world’ application because the process of metabolic breakdown and cellular renewal that was described happens with our own blood and our own organs as well. If this process as the Society claimed does in fact constitute “eating” than everyone is guilty because by the Society’s own interpretation of the Bible, it is just as much a violation to eat our own blood as to eat someone else’s blood.

Therefore this rationale effectively condemned everyone on the whole planet. With the reversal on the prohibition against organ transplants in 1980 this rationale had to be dropped. This was also the last attempt to produce an explanation that directly equated a blood transfusion with the eating of blood. It can be seen therefore that the Society was starting to run into some very serious problems in maintaining their original viewpoint by the late 60’s.

It must be remembered that the mistaken notion about blood actually being a nutrient was the foundational cornerstone of their objection to transfusion medicine as the September 15, 1958 issue of The Watchtower on page 575 clearly shows:

Each time the prohibition of blood is mentioned in the Scriptures it is in connection with taking it as food, and so it is as a nutrient that we are concerned with in its being forbidden.

However, blood in and of itself is not a nutrient and because of this a blood transfusion does not nourish the body, does not have as its design the nourishing of the body, and is not given because the patient needs nourishment. This is a fact that the Society has by degrees been forced to silently concede.

Overlapping the second explanation but outlasting it in the end, a third rationale drew an analogy between blood and other substances. For example: certain substances have the same effect on the body whether they are taken orally or by injection and thus a prohibition against taking one of these orally would also apply to taking it intravenously. This principle was said to be equally true with blood.

This analogy appeared as long ago as 1968 in the publication “The Truth That Leads To Eternal Life” and as recently as 1989 in the publication “Reasoning From The Scriptures.” In both of these books alcohol was the substance used in the analogy. In the booklet “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question Of Blood.” (1977) on page 18, the same line of reasoning was used, this time with antibiotics:

Doctors know that a person can be fed through the mouth or intravenously. Likewise, certain medicines can be administered through various routes. Some antibiotics, for instance, can be taken orally in tablet form or injected into a person’s muscles or circulatory system (intravenously). What if you had taken a certain antibiotic tablet and, because of having a dangerous allergic reaction, were warned to abstain from that drug in the future? Would it be reasonable to consider that medical warning to mean that you could not take the drug in tablet form but could safely inject it into your bloodstream? Hardly! The main point would not be the route of administration, but that you should abstain from that antibiotic altogether. Similarly, the decree that Christians must ‘abstain from blood’ clearly covers the taking of blood into the body, whether through the mouth or directly into the bloodstream.

With substances like alcohol and certain antibiotics it makes no difference how they are administered since the end result –the absorption by the body– is the same. If a doctor forbade you to drink alcohol, naturally you couldn’t inject it into your blood stream either because it would have the same undesirable result. However, would this mean that you couldn’t use a mouthwash or cough syrup that contained alcohol, or use alcohol as a topical antiseptic or in an aftershave? Of course not. The very idea is absurd since the end result is either not the same at all, or the benefits far outweigh the risks. In the case of blood, is the end result of receiving a transfusion the same as if you had eaten the blood?

A viable blood product like packed RBC ‘s for example is alive; it is living tissue. This is the whole reason that blood products typically have a limited shelf life. When they are no longer viable, they are useless. When they are eaten, the digestive process kills this living tissue. Blood transfused however, retains its form and resumes its divinely designed function in the body of the recipient. For all intents and purposes then, a blood transfusion is an organ transplant. Even the Blood booklet itself on page 41 acknowledged this fact:

Consequently, whether having religious objections to blood transfusions or not, many a person might decline blood simply because it is essentially an organ transplant that at best is only partially compatible with his own blood. [bold added] – Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood, p.41

Therefore, there is a basic and fundamental difference between eating blood as food and having it transfused. It is the same difference between eating another human’s kidney and receiving it as a transplant. The two acts are radically different which fact the Society now recognizes. There was no basis then for comparing the transplant of living tissue in a manner consistent with its design purpose with the taking of a substance which is simply absorbed by the body no matter how it is administered. The ludicrous nature of the Society’s analogy can easily be shown by comparison:

“Consider a man who is told by his doctor that he must abstain from alcohol. Would he be obedient if he quit drinking alcohol but had it put directly into his veins?” Reasoning from the Scriptures p. 73

“Consider a man who is told by his doctor that he must abstain from meat. Would he be obedient if he quit eating meat but accepted a kidney transplant?”

Clearly there is no connection between the eating and digesting of food and the transplant of living tissue. The two acts are completely unconnected. The alcohol/antibiotic vs. blood analogy amounts to nothing more than a sophism. This may sound a little harsh but it must be realized that an analogy is only a figure of speech, a way of making a statement by drawing a comparison. An analogy like any other speaking technique can be used to say absolutely anything no matter whether it be right or wrong.

Typically, false analogies rely upon false comparisons as their starting point. This can be seen in the Society’s analogy which relies upon the reader’s acceptance of an equality between the transplant of a living tissue like blood and the injection of a substance such as alcohol. The validity of any analogy lies not in the analogy itself but in the actual proof that the comparison to be made is indeed a valid one, which normally would be offered first.

The year 1980 brought a reversal on the Society’s 1967 ruling on the question of organ transplants. They were now allowed as a matter of conscience again. This further weakened the case against blood transfusions. Remember that in 1967 organ transplants had been condemned for the exact same reason that blood transfusions were. Now, that reason was officially retracted.

After having said publicly that taking a donated organ into the body via transplant need not be viewed as eating it in principle, the Society could not very well at this point fall back on the explanation they had just rejected and say that taking donated blood into the body via transfusion was eating it, especially after having admitted just three years prior to this that a blood transfusion was “essentially an organ transplant.”

In our view, this was the point at which the Society completely lost their case against blood transfusions. No longer could they without contradiction, make the claim that a blood transfusion was the same even in principle as the eating of blood and because of this, the original ties to the scriptural prohibition against eating blood were damaged beyond repair. The Society did not give up, but from this point forward any explanation establishing a link between blood transfusions and the eating of blood would only be made in the vaguest, most roundabout of ways.

In the brochure How Can Blood Save Your Life? (1990) on page 6 the attempt was again made to link the eating of blood with transfusions by quoting from a 17th century professor of anatomy named Thomas Bartholin, who thought the two were similar:

Similar is the receiving of alien blood from a cut vein, either through the mouth or by instruments of transfusion. The authors of this operation are held in terror by the divine law, by which the eating of blood is prohibited.’

The Society did not even attempt to explain why the two were similar, relying entirely on the quote from Bartholin. However, since they themselves had quite evidently misunderstood the role that blood played just 30 years before this, why are we now supposed to accept the thoughts of a man from over 300 years ago? Bartholin was obviously reasoning under the same misconception about just exactly what blood really did in the body as his contemporary, Denys (and everyone else in the 17th century for that matter.)

In Bartholin’s day leeches and laxatives were the sovereign remedy for everything, and the administering of anesthetic to a patient required the placing of a metal bowl over the head and striking it with a hammer. He died 184 years before the issue of spontaneous generation would be settled and 92 years before oxygen would be discovered. He may well have been a good man, but accurate observations on medical matters require accurate knowledge of the issues involved.

Finally the explanations ceased altogether. In the largest recent article on the blood issue, entitled “Treasure the Real Life” which appeared in the January 15 1995 issue of The Watchtower, no attempt at all was made to explain why a blood transfusion would be the same as eating blood. In order to cope with the complete absence of even a tiny shred of proof that would in any way substantiate this idea, the Society has had to resort to embroidering the scriptures, that is to say rephrasing the pertinent texts in a way which greatly enlarges their scope. The most common of these rewordings in the publications is referred to as “The Creator’s ban on taking in blood to sustain life.” There are a number of problems with this approach though.

First of all, stating Jehovah’s law in terms this draconian would prohibit any and all uses of blood. This is quite impossible to harmonize with the Society’s current position which allows some blood components and prohibits others.

The most obvious problem with this approach however, is that NOWHERE in the Bible can you find Jehovah’s law on blood expressed in these terms. At no place in the Bible is a distinction ever drawn as to the motives one might have in eating blood. It didn’t matter if it sustained your life or not and because of this ‘sustaining life’ was not an issue. In like fashion the substitution of the word ‘eat’ with the phrase ‘taking in’ is completely meaningless and even diversionary because nowhere in the Bible is it even hinted that blood could enter your body in a way other than by eating and because of this the broader aspect of ‘taking in’ (e.g. a tissue transplant) is not an issue either. The facts prove that, the transfusion of a blood product is not analogous to eating it.

Rephrasing the Bible in this way makes it appear to say something that in reality it doesn’t say at all. One has to wonder why there would be a need to rephrase the scriptures in the first place? To attempt to prove a point that has not and cannot be proven with reason and logic? One would logically suppose that Jehovah God, the creator of language itself would be capable of clearly and distinctly expressing his will to his servants in a way that would eliminate the need for subsequent generations to add to it, reinterpret it and reword it.

In view of the pejorative nature of the argumentation that has been used to uphold the prohibition on blood transfusions, one might wonder why the Society has stuck so doggedly to the position that transfusions do in fact constitute a feeding upon blood. I cannot begin to explain all the reasons, but the foremost would have to be that this is a moral necessity on the Society’s part.

When one considers the question from purely a legal standpoint, it takes no great insight to realize that showing the act in question to be prohibited by proving that it definitely does fall under the umbrella of what the law specifically states is a much sounder approach than stretching the law to cover an act that definitely falls outside those boundaries by the arbitrary claim that the law could have/should have/might have meant more than what is specifically stated.

Even if this would be permissible from a legal standpoint, it must be remembered that we are dealing with a religious, not a legal question. As a religious stand based upon the Bible, there are some very strong scriptural precedents that rule out the “stretch the law to fit the situation” approach. The Society has always been cognizant of the moral necessity of providing a clear link which would positively place the medical procedure of transfusion within the definitive boundaries of what was specifically forbidden in scripture, namely the eating of blood. This was stated very succinctly over 40 years ago:

It is his law we are seeking to comply with in this matter of blood, and after we have followed his requirement to bleed the animal, and thus met his demands, is that not sufficient? We need not become absurd and quibble like a Pharisee, piling on burdens beyond the requirements of divine law.-Matt. 23:4. w51 7/1 415 Questions from Readers

For anyone to take what they have speculated and conjectured upon individually as to what the prohibition against eating blood might mean in the context of 20th century medicine, and elevate it to where it becomes the absolute standard that others are forced to accept and believe in, emphatically does mean to commit the “Sin of the Pharisee’s” in the fullest sense of the term.

Therefore it should be self-evident that as long as the acceptance of a blood product remains forbidden, the need to positively link a transfusion with the original biblical prohibition has never become a non-issue and never will. However that is exactly the problem the Society now faces. If the original premise is to be accepted by anyone today, it should not be too much to ask for them to justify this premise with a logical explanation. How could anyone expect parents to make these kind of health-care decisions for their children if the underlying principles cannot be adequately explained?

In this regard, it can be seen that despite many decades of trying, no lucid explanation has ever been given. Today the Society is reduced to rewording the Bible and using misconceptions about blood from the 1600’s as proof of their claim. The fact that the Society cannot quote from a single modern source is further symptomatic of the problem they now face, which is that the very reason that blood transfusions were declared as unscriptural in the first place was based upon a mistaken premise. No medical doctor anywhere (including those who are Witnesses) will come forward in support of this position. For this reason, the Society today no longer even attempts to explain why transfusions would fall under the prohibition against eating blood because it has become impossible to perpetuate the original mistaken premise.


Evolution of the Watchtower Blood Policy — 3 Comments

  1. I would not accept a blood transfusion either for health reasons. There are many doctors now that do surgery without the use of blood. There are bloodless surgery wards at hospitals across the nation. The military has gone mostly bloodless. There was a story on the news of a little boy who’s parents were witnesses and he got a terminal form of blood cancer. He was cured by a bone marrow transplant. My point is there are many medical choices available without using blood. You just need to do a little research about the procedure and have good communication with your doctor

    • Melissa – your remarks are full of significant amounts of misinformation. While blood conservation medicine is able to reduce the need for blood, it remains essential in many situations like trauma, childbirth complications, blood disorders and chemotherapy to name a few. Also bear in mind that Watchtower policy has permitted the use of blood products for many decades in ever increasing quantity. 100% of blood is now permitted, with the only requirement being that it be some fraction of the whole.

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