Saving a Thousand Lives a Year: Reforming Watchtower’s Policy on Blood – Part One

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By 2017-09-25T22:35:35+00:00 on September 11th, 2017
Jehovah's Witnesses, Religious Extremism, Survivor Stories|22 Comments
Editor's Note: This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Saving a Thousand Lives a Year

A brief history of Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB) and Watchtower’s Blood Transfusion Policy

Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness

lee elder

Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (JW) and baptized at the age of nine, I was very serious about what I believed to be a unique life-saving religion. I was also deeply concerned by the coming “great tribulation” and the battle of Armageddon that I was assured would occur in my lifetime – a theme I heard constantly at the Kingdom Hall and from other JW’s who were glued to every word the Watchtower published.

At the age of fourteen, I received permission to stop attending public school and begin “pioneering”: first temporarily and a year later, a full-time pioneer. Most JW’s were expecting the “great tribulation” to break out in 1975, so I was trying to save lives by spending a 100 hours a month in the door-to-door ministry. It was an exciting time, because I was part of a tight-knit community convinced that the long hoped for “new order” would arrive any day.

Even the City Overseer sold his business and was pioneering, by October of 1975. I clearly remember stopping for a break in field service and having coffee with him, along with two other elders. It was the weekend of October 4th and 5th and we were sitting in the coffee shop of a Holiday Inn, certain the “great tribulation” was imminent, perhaps that very weekend.

Of course, nothing happened that remotely approached what the Watchtower had strongly suggested, both in print and through its appointed representatives. But, like most true-believing Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are handicapped by their lack of understanding of cognitive dissonance, I was able to consciously discard this reality. So, I continued pioneering, trying to save lives from an impending just-around-the-corner Armageddon, for another two and a half years.

However, something that would forever alter my path in life was happening. A friend in the congregation I attended was diagnosed with Leukemia, the same condition that, years before, had prematurely claimed the life of my Witness grandmother after she had refused blood.

grandmother as young woman

My grandmother as a young woman

Like my grandmother, Candy also refused blood and became gravely ill. She knew she was going to die, and asked me if I would be a pallbearer at her funeral. Candy was just fifteen years old when she died, and I was only sixteen when I helped carry her coffin out of the Kingdom Hall. That experience left a profound impression on my young mind.

Tough questions – no answers

In 1996, after being a JW elder for about nine years, I started to research the Watchtower’s blood doctrine independently. This extensive research convinced me that the blood policy was seriously flawed, and had resulted in needless premature death and disability for thousands of JW’s – many of them children, like my friend Candy.

Early on in my research, I suspected that Watchtower writers and policy makers also saw flaws in the blood policy. This was evident by the use of so many blood plasma products, the many changes in policy, and the way the changes in the blood doctrine were justified. So I decided to try to “reform” the policy from within the organization.

In 1997, I built the first version of ajwrb.org which I called: “New Light on Blood”. I also created a pseudonym for myself, the “Liberal Elder”, later shortened to Lee Elder. If I had used my real name, I’d have been coerced by the other elders (acting under the direction of the Watchtower’s policies) to desist from this kind of activity. If I had refused to desist, I’d have been disfellowshipped and shunned.

I was immediately contacted by many JW’s – many of them elders and Hospital Liaison Committee members. They had arrived at the same conclusion, with similar goals as mine. That was the birth of the Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood or AJWRB, which took the Watchtower Society by surprise.

The Watchtower had never seen the likes of this before: it was a movement within the organization to reform the blood policy, spearheaded by elders and Hospital Liason Committee (HLC) members who were eyewitnesses to the suffering and death of their fellow believers. We were an organized group with a voice that the Watchtower could not simply silence by excommunicating us.

As time passed and I expanded my research, I learned about the Watchtower’s troubled past and other doctrinal irregularities, which are difficult to avoid once a Witness opens the Pandora’s Box. One of the early books I read was Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, a former Governing Body member. I later read Ray’s book, In Search of Christian Freedom, where the chapter on the Watchtower’s blood doctrine gave some excellent insights into this issue.

Disillusionment sets in – the Watchtower commits perjury

In 1998, I began receiving regular reports about a controversy between the Watchtower and the Bulgarian government. Then I received news that Bulgaria had banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, in part because of the blood policy. The Watchtower then filed a complaint with the European Commission on Human Rights (ECHR).

The ECHR in Strasbourg, France

In this written complaint, the Watchtower argued that the government’s claim was false and without merit because there were no sanctions ever taken against a JW who accepted blood; that individual JW’s had a free choice in the matter. They even argued that a child could not be considered a member.

Sadly, these misrepresentations caused the ECHR to side with the Watchtower, and they issued the following ruling:

This assertion, which the Watchtower had presented to the ECHR, was a complete surprise to me, as it ran counter to everything I had been taught and experienced as a Witness and an elder. At that time, the use of any non-Watchtower approved blood product was a “gross sin” which required an investigation by a judicial committee, and possible disfellowshipping with subsequent full-scale shunning. I also knew that children were considered to be members, because my brother and I were baptized as minors (me at age nine), along with many other JW children I grew up with, like my fifteen year old JW friend Candy, who was baptized and died over the issue.

After the situation in Bulgaria was publicized, with the Watchtower claiming that the taking of blood would not result in “disfellowshipping”, some notable journalists concluded that the Watchtower was abandoning its blood policy – or at the very least radically modifying it. Based on Watchtower briefs to the European Commission on Human Rights, this was a reasonable conclusion. The only other possibility was that the Watchtower was maintaining two separate blood policies – one for Bulgaria and one for the rest of the world.

Once the first press reports were published, the phones started to ring at Bethel branches around the world, as individual JW’s and journalists sought confirmation regarding what had transpired. The Watchtower was forced to act quickly to try and correct the understandable confusion, and limit damage for perjuring themselves, by issuing a press release denying anything had changed.

Here is that press release:

This was a clear example of Watchtower officials talking out of both sides of their mouths. One story was for the government of Bulgaria and the European Commission on Human Rights, but there was an entirely different story for inquiring JW’s and the press. The Watchtower refers to this tactic as “Theocratic Strategy”.

Nothing newsworthy about Watchtower lying

I phoned former governing body member Ray Franz to discuss the situation in Europe, and he suggested that I contact John Dart, who was the religion editor for the Los Angeles Times. After explaining what had occurred, Mr. Dart said: “There is nothing newsworthy about the Watchtower lying.” He explained that Watchtower officials had a long history of lying, and this was well known among journalists who covered them. I was stunned.

This was an epiphany for me. Up until this point, I was hopeful about the prospects for genuine reform of the Watchtower’s blood policy. I had believed that the Watchtower, despite its problems, could be a force for good if we reformed a flawed policy. However, from this point on, I was realistic about the true nature of the Watchtower’s leaders, their motivations and the culture of undue influence.

Reforms to the blood policy would come only when the Watchtower concluded they had no other choice, or that reform served their best interests. Clearly, the Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB) had to be at least as much about reforming the thinking of individual JW’s, and the medical community, as it was about reforming Watchtower policy.

Ratcheting up the pressure on Watchtower

I started working closely with Dr. Osamu Muramoto, M.D. “Sam” as I called him, became a friend, and a trusted adviser. And he did more to advance the cause of AJWRB within the medical community than any other single individual. It was clear that he genuinely cared about saving the lives of JW’s. Dr. Muramoto took the time to understand the Watchtower’s policy on blood, and saw the importance of educating other physicians about the discrepancies and ethical problems created by the policy.

Dr. “Sam” Muramoto

Dr. “Sam” Muramoto

That marked the beginning of a very active period for AJWRB. Together with Dr. Muramoto, we collaborated on a series of important articles that were published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the Western Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal. We hosted exhibits at the annual meetings of the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the American College of Anesthesiologists where we spoke with countless physicians regarding the Watchtower’s blood policy and the work of the Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB). We distributed thousands of reprints of the journal articles, as well as brochures designed to assist physicians in talking with their JW patients.

The impact we were having on the Watchtower was significant. Where they had previously been able to simply shut down inquiries from questioning elders and Hospital Liaison Committee (HLC) members, they were now forced to answer for the irrational aspects of their policy, as well as the manner in which they enforced it. Previously, troublesome elders and HLC members could be silenced through disfellowshipping for “apostasy”. The anonymity of the Internet, combined with the ease of information sharing, changed that forever, but the Watchtower was slow to grasp that fact.

Never again would the Watchtower be able to blatantly misrepresent its position without challenge. Thousands of JW’s were learning what we knew, and chose to leave the organization. This was not our goal: it was simply the way things worked out. There would be shock waves as this rippled through the Jehovah’s Witness and the medical communities, and many people made use of the resources that Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB) provided.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about the Watchtower’s blood policy that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Here is the full press release from which the above snippet was excerpted:

 

Series NavigationSaving a Thousand Lives a Year: Reforming Watchtower’s Policy on Blood – Part Two
Author

Lee Elder is the pseudonym of a former Jehovah’s Witness Elder.

22 Comments

  1. Kris Roth September 11, 2017 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    Very well-written and informative! I can’t think of any personal experiences I’ve had with this issue, although even being out of the organization for over 20 years, I’d much rather donate my own blood before any surgery I’d have. Strange that, despite being a vocal and public apostate, some crap still lingers, isn’t it? I’d gladly donate, though. (Also I wonder if the author is aware of the two typos or if that happened on someone else’s end?)

  2. Richard E. Kelly September 11, 2017 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Kris, for the catch on the typos. Corrections have been made..

  3. Enlightened September 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    I live in Canada. I was a sincere and dedicated Jehovah’s Witness for 30 eyars. I left in 1986. My niece’s JW husband in his early 30’s died due to a lack of blood. He was hit by a drunk driver on his way to a JW wedding. His spleen was ruptured, and the doctor attending him said, “We could have saved that man”!!

    He left a baby boy and a very young disillusioned wife.

  4. Lee Elder September 12, 2017 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    Kris: The WT instills very deep phobias about the use of blood that will probably remain with us for the rest of our lives. I found myself still carrying my “No Blood” card several years after I knew the policy was bogus. I now try to think about blood as an organ transplant. Not something I’d choose to have, but if I need it, I’d be grateful it was available. One of the best things we can do to help overcome the implanted blood phobias is to arm ourselves with facts, and be cognizant of how the Watchtower twists science to support their irrational policy. http://ajwrb.org/blood-transfusions-what-are-the-risks http://ajwrb.org/the-watchtowers-medical-expert

  5. Lee Elder September 12, 2017 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    Enlightened: It is very important that tell stories like your niece’s, and not allow them to be lost to time. It is the best tool we have to drive home the cost of supporting this irrational policy. Please contact me.

    • L. Hall September 16, 2017 at 7:06 am - Reply

      Lee Elder: I live in Australia, where I witnessed the pointless death of a young woman whilst in an ICU some 3 years ago. It’s a truly horrifying story and I’m not sure whether it is “mine to tell”, or how it possibly made sense within the framework of JW belief. Are you interested at all in being told about it?

  6. Malisa Wright September 13, 2017 at 2:22 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this article.

  7. Clement Mabunda September 13, 2017 at 4:32 am - Reply

    Great article! Having read this before, it was good refresher course.
    (Lee Elder is still anonymous?)
    ——————
    A suggestion I’d like to tender. The abbreviation “AJWRB” is hard to remember (even after all these years). How about turning it into an acronym: “JWARB”. Jehovah’s Witness Advocates for Reform on Blood.
    I submit, not only is it easier to remember, but it cooler.
    (The advocacy is fundamentally an insider thing; so it is Jehovah’s Witness advocates).
    ——————
    Is Muramoto still alive?
    ——————
    I’m currently writing an academic essay on the blood issue vis-à-vis children born of Jehovah’s Witness parents. This will prove useful.
    ————-
    All the best…

  8. Lee Elder September 13, 2017 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Clement: Yes, Dr. Muramoto is still alive, but retired at this point. A little too late
    in the game to change the acronym I think, but thanks for the suggestion. I look
    forward to reading your essay.

  9. Maxwell September 14, 2017 at 1:17 am - Reply

    As I understand it Watchtower changed its policy on JW’s taking a blood transfusion from being a disfellowshipping offense to a case of disassociation. Thus they could maintain that there are no sanctions for taking blood. If anyone has any other insight on the matter please share. I understand this change took place at the time they were involved in being recognized by the Bulgarian government.

  10. Lee Elder September 14, 2017 at 4:12 am - Reply

    Maxwell: I believe the change was entirely procedural, and likely in response to the criticism that was being leveled for their hypocrisy in maintaining two policies. The notion that there are “no sanctions” is absurd. The individual is treated exactly the same as a disfellowshipped person, with the exception being there is no official “appeal” procedure for one who is disassociated. Thus the policy is actually more punitive imo.

    • Maxwell September 14, 2017 at 7:03 am - Reply

      I wonder if any JW who has taken a blood transfusion and then been questioned by the elders has cited HIPPA regulations and then threatened legal action for violation of privacy. Wouldn’t two witnesses be required to prove someone had accepted blood? I would think a lawsuit would squelch further investigation.

  11. Lee Elder September 14, 2017 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    I have not heard of that, but rather doubt too many JW’s would think of that approach while under Watchtower’s undue influence.

  12. childofheart September 15, 2017 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    I have never had to many problems with that, being protected as a foster child my “parents” cant make decisions for me. But i feel very bad that many children in that religion suffer because of this needless law. My heart goes out to all those who have been victims of this cult.

  13. Bill Grubb September 17, 2017 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    :—>

    Have you seen the televised and widely broadcast campaign by Leah Remini and Mike Rinder about the evils of Scientology ? It is high time that a similar series of documentaries was done regarding the JW cult best on major networks which in Canada would be the CBC and CTV and maybe Global. Start with the fake bible and then all the abuses especially of children –emotional psychological as well as sexual then the forced pledges to refuse blood and the enforcement of the policy by the so-called hospital liaison committees who therefore should be charged and convicted of at least accessory to murder !! Go for it !!

  14. Tim Hord September 20, 2017 at 11:43 pm - Reply

    Excellent

  15. Jack Wyatt September 24, 2017 at 4:12 am - Reply

    Hi Lee. do you know Marvin Shilmer?

  16. Lee Elder September 25, 2017 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    The toll the religion takes on young ones is staggering. The JW leaders very rarely have children themselves, and seem content to view the casualties as “small sacrifices”. There are some projects in the works at this time that are attempting to get the necessary funding for the production of high profile documentaries. It helps to have someone who is a celebrity involved as was the case with Leah Remini and Scientology.

    • Malachi Sawyer October 9, 2017 at 12:53 pm - Reply

      Rumor has it that Leah Remini may bring JWs into the discussion in S3. That would be interesting.

  17. Malachi Sawyer October 9, 2017 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Hi Lee,
    Thanks for sharing your story, it’s always good to get to know the background of those who are involved in exposing the Watchtower’s hypocrisy. The many thousands of lives that have been sacrificed upon their altar are by no means a small sacrifice. I lost a dear friend when I was 12 years old, I suspect that the no-blood policy factored into her death. A number of other friends followed over the years. Reform is not possible for this cult, even if it were I do not see any benefit they provide to the community at large. Admittedly there are those who have been ‘helped’ by the Watchtower but I feel that that is more a result of the imposition of goals and structure on their lives. Far more have been harmed by their doctrines and policies. The blood on this organization’s hands is staggering.

    Keep up the good work.

  18. Leesa November 14, 2017 at 10:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you informative interesting article. I faded and become a nurse after 30 plus years baptized. I found it very troubling that most Jehovah’s Witness are sincere and humble individuals who have a very low level of education yet the society expects them to make complex decisions about an increasing array of blood products with little or no education.

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