Jehovah’s Witnesses place great importance on living a moral life, derived from a close reading of the Bible – ‘the Bible’s moral code’. They use the concept of ‘Bible trained conscience’ to refer to ethical decision-making using Biblical principles. They also place great stock in raising their children and teenagers in a moral lifestyle and many of the materials on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ websites are geared towards teaching children ethics and morals using stories and characters in the Bible. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, a moral lifestyle includes modest dress; moderation in all things related to diet, consumption and finances (for example, alcohol is not forbidden but should not be consumed to excess; the majority of Witnesses have a low to middle income due to their choice of trade-related professions and the accumulation of wealth is not encouraged); and a modest character (competitiveness is not encouraged, nor is seeking praise).
Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to have a socially conservative worldview with the patriarchal family held as the ideal. There is not gender equality in the movement but rather a belief in gender complementarity. The husband is the head of the household, the wife submits to him, and the children obey their parents as authoritative figures. Women cannot be elders or ministerial servants within the movement as women are not permitted to teach.
Marriage is considered to be a sacred and permanent bond between one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation. Witnesses oppose both abortion and euthanasia, but the use of contraception is permissible as it is not prohibited in the Bible. Adultery is the only reason for which divorce is permitted within the movement. Those who have divorced because of adultery are permitted to remarry, as are widows. Sexual relations before marriage are forbidden as are all homosexual relations. Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the Bible to say that ‘sexual immorality is prohibited’, by which they understand all heterosexual sex outside of marriage and all homosexual sex. They recognise that some people are homosexual, and claim to accept them, providing they remain celibate. Not only should people not engage in sexual relations outside marriage, but they should avoid any cultural elements (music, films, books etc) that “promotes sexual conduct that offends God.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the physical body as God’s creation and therefore have a responsibility to keep it as fit and healthy as possible. Suffering, illness and disease are believed to be the result of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent primacy of Satan in the current world. However, Witnesses make recourse to secular, ‘allopathic’ medicine and do not have a healing ministry, believing that the “gifts of the spirit” largely died out with first generation of Apostles (Chryssides 2016: 185). The exception to the use of secular medicine is the issue of blood transfusions, which Witnesses prohibit. Former practices of prohibiting vaccinations and organ transplants have now stopped, as not addressed in the Bible, and Witnesses now can receive both (Chryssides 2016: 188). The use of alternative therapies (complementary and alternative medicine) is a matter of individual choice.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions is due to their belief that blood is sacred, as the life force of living things, and its ingestion is prohibited in several Biblical passages (Genesis 9:3-4, Leviticus 17:14 and Acts 15:8-29) (Chryssides 2016: 192). In the Leviticus passage, God warns that anyone eating blood will be ‘cut off’. The Biblical prohibitions have been interpreted as including taking blood into the body intravenously. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject transfusions of whole allogeneic blood (blood from a different individual) and its primary components (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma). It is also prohibited to accept one’s own blood donated prior to surgery as blood should not be stored: “He shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.” (Leviticus 17:13). Blood-based medication is also prohibited as is the consumption of blood-based foods such as black pudding.
A Jehovah’s Witness who accepts a blood transfusion may be disfellowshipped (cut off from the community). There are several exceptions where Jehovah’s Witnesses are permitted to accept blood, including dialysis, haemodilution (a technique in which equipment is linked to the patient’s circulatory system), and intra-operative blood salvage.
Witnesses carry a ‘No Blood’ ‘advance decision document’ with them at all times so that in cases of emergency, medical staff will know their position. Witness children carry an ‘identity card’ which has been signed by their parents. However, Witnesses do accept numerous forms of alternative treatment, including the use of non-blood volume expanders. Witnesses have been proactive in advocating these alternative treatments and have established Hospital Information Services responsible for education on and facilitation of bloodless surgery. Designated elders also visit their local hospitals to ensure they have the necessary information, consent forms and professional contacts to ensure bloodless treatments. The Jehovah’s Witness website also has an area for clinicians with numerous downloadable resources, links to peer-reviewed articles and more. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that bloodless alternatives are safer and more sustainable in the long term.
Needless to say there have been cases where Witnesses have died rather than accept a blood transfusion. Beliefs about blood transfusions are especially problematic in the case of children who find themselves in life-threatening situations or medical emergencies. In Britain and the USA, most medical professionals are willing to explore non-blood options in the treatment of children at the request of their legal guardians. However, some state laws require that doctors administer blood-based treatment to minors if it is their professional opinion that this is necessary to avoid imminent death or severe and permanent damage. In the UK, doctors can have recourse to the High Court to make the child a ward of court.
There is an organisation called the Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB) which claims that the Jehovah’s Witness position on blood is doctrinally wrong. AJWRB consists of Jehovah’s Witnesses who want to remain members and have completely free choice of medical treatment.