Intended for healthcare professionals


Young Jehovah’s Witness who refused a blood transfusion is allowed to die

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 12 June 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4097
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

A 22 year old Jehovah’s Witness with sickle cell anaemia has recently been allowed to die in the United Kingdom after refusing a blood transfusion, the lawyer advising the NHS trust caring for him has announced.

Robert Tobin, a partner in the law firm Kennedys, was consulted because doctors were reluctant to let the man, who was in a sickle cell crisis, die when such a simple procedure could have saved his life.1

Doctors “looked into the possibility of alternative products, but the only thing that would work was a human blood transfusion,” said Tobin. “It was very difficult for the doctors. The whole thing took about three weeks in the end.

“He was gradually deteriorating, every day dragged on, and he eventually died. But they wondered if they’d made the right diagnosis at first, because he wasn’t deteriorating as quickly as they thought he would.”

Tobin said that the initial concern was that the man’s mother, also a Jehovah’s Witness, who was sitting by his side when he died, and an elder from his church were unduly influencing him. But a doctor from a neighbouring trust assessed that he had full capacity and was making the decision on his own.

Lawyers drew up an advance decision for the man to sign in case he lost capacity before he died, “to save the family from retrospectively suing on the grounds we weren’t acting in his best interests if he lost capacity,” Tobin added.

More than a decade ago some Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States were given Hemopure, a haemoglobin solution made from fractionated cow’s blood, on a compassionate use basis during clinical trials, after the church’s governing body announced that it was acceptable. But some safety concerns arose over the product, and it has not been approved for use in humans in either the US or the UK.

John Porter, professor of haematology at University College London, told the BMJ that he was not aware of any alternative to blood transfusions that could be offered to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK at the moment.

Chris Cooper, professor of biochemistry at the University of Essex, whose group is working on an artificial blood product, predicted that a product would be available in “five or 10 years.”

Although the law makes it clear that a patient with full mental capacity has the right to refuse treatment, even if the result is death, patients have sometimes had to go to court to stop doctors treating them.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4097


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