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Watchtower Approves HemoPure for Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses have long been known for their rejection of blood and blood-component transfusion, even when it is necessary to save life. In a remarkable change in policy, the Witnesses’ governing body announced in the June 15, 2000 issue of its official church publication The Watchtower, that members may now accept "fractions of any of the primary components" of blood.  (Italics added) Previously, Witnesses who accepted a transfusion of blood fractions other than those found in plasma faced possible expulsion and enforced shunning by church members.

This change in policy was particularly timely for one man. According to a September 24, 2000 article in the Sacramento Bee, a patient was recently transfused with Hemopure®, a highly purified oxygen-carrying hemoglobin solution made from fractionated bovine (cow) blood and manufactured by Biopure Corporation.

Dorsey Griffith, a medical writer for the Bee, states that Gregory Brown, a representative from the Jehovah's Witnesses Hospital Liaison Committee, approved the use of the oxygen-carrying solution that was transfused into the patient, Jose Orduño.  The article notes:  “When Orduño woke up from his drug-induced slumber, about a month after the ordeal began, Angelica was there …His sister told him about the accident and how he almost died, and about the drug made from cow blood that had saved his life.”

That approval of the use of hemoglobin marks a notable change in the Watchtower Society’s policy is readily seen from its own published statements:

“Is it wrong to sustain life by administering a transfusion of blood or plasma or red cells or others of the component parts of the blood? Yes!...The prohibition includes "any blood at all." (Leviticus 3:17) - Blood, Medicine and the Law of God, 1961, pp. 13, 14

“…various tonics and tablets sold by druggists show on their labels that they contain blood fractions such as hemoglobin. So it is necessary for one to be alert… if they are to keep themselves ‘without spot from the world.’—Jas. 1:27.” The Watchtower, 9/15/61, p. 557.

“Early in man’s history, our Creator ruled that humans should not eat blood. (Genesis 9:3, 4) He stated that blood represents life, which is a gift from him. Blood removed from a creature could be used only in sacrifice, such as on the altar. Otherwise, blood from a creature was to be poured on the ground, in a sense giving it back to God ...It would be right, of course, to avoid products that listed things such as blood, blood plasma, plasma, globin (or globulin) protein, or hemoglobin (or globin) iron.”  The Watchtower, 10/15/92 - Questions From Readers. (Italics added)

As recently as 1998 two officials from the Watchtower Society’s “Hospital Information Services” wrote that Jehovah's Witnesses “do not accept hemoglobin which is a major part of red blood cells.... Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept a blood substitute which uses hemoglobin taken from a human or animal source." Bailey R, Ariga T. The view of Jehovah's Witnesses on blood substitutes. Artif Cells Blood Substit Immobil Biotechnol 1998;26:571-576.

The policy on hemoglobin and other blood fractions was changed in the June 15, 2000 issue of The Watchtower.  This latest change may in fact cause further confusion for many Witnesses since products like Hemopure®  are derived from large quantities of stored animal blood.  Numerous witnesses have questioned the logic of such an internally inconsistent dogma. Some believe that the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is simply changing its long-standing doctrine gradually to avoid legal problems anticipated with an overt change to a policy that has resulted in so many deaths over the years.

Hemopure® is currently being evaluated for human use in a pivotal, multinational Phase III clinical trial. Biopure expects to complete this trial and file Biologic License Applications (BLA’s) in the United States, European Union and Canada in 2001 for perioperative use in elective surgeries. The company has already applied for marketing approval of Hemopure® in South Africa with a proposed product indication to eliminate or reduce red blood cell transfusions in elective surgeries. Biopure is also investigating the product's use in trauma, to oxygenate hypoxic tumors, and in conditions where tissue oxygenation may be beneficial but blood is not normally transfused.

The “compassionate use” program makes Hemopure® available where a life-threatening situation exists and compatible red blood cell transfusion is 1) not available, 2) not effective, or 3) not acceptable to the patient.  Requests for “compassionate use” availability of Hemopure® may come from the family or doctor of the patient; thereafter the patient, the patient’s medical institution, and Biopure must approve the request, which is then forwarded along with details of the case for final approval by the FDA.  Approval is made on a case-by-case basis, and in those cases where it has been approved, it has been made available within a few days.  Requests for information regarding “compassionate use” approval of Hemopure® should be directed to Jan Anderson, R.N., of Biopure.  Her telephone number is 617-234-6827.  For further information see the Biopure website at: http://www.biopure.com.

A.J.W.R.B. welcomes the recent developments but will continue to work for further revisions in the Watchtower Society’s blood policy. We believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses should have a free choice in their medical treatment without controls or sanctions from the Watchtower Society that could separate them from their religious community or Jehovah’s Witness family members and friends.