Rights and Science: Persecution of and by Jehovah’s Witnesses


As has been happening at a concerning and increasing rate over the last several years, the Russian Federation continues with its persecution and crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses. This can take the form of raids as happened in 2019, as reported by Human Rights Watch in “Persecution Against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia Escalates.”

It happens in home searches, interrogations, and harassment, as covered in “Russia: Sweeping Arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses” by Human Rights Watch once more. Kudos to their efforts in covering human rights violations.

According to the Moscow Times reportage in “Russia ‘Escalating’ Jehovah’s Witnesses Crackdown – HRW” on some of the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with the labeling by the Russian Supreme Court of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization in 2017, 313 people had been estimated, by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to have been charged or convicted (circa January 10, 2020). There are a lot of stories of persecution and damage to lives coming out now, whether towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses from crackdowns, or from the Jehovah’s Witnesses towards child abuse survivors from members followed by cover-ups or deaths following from theological policies on blood transfusions.

In late June of 2018, Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses are simply peacefully exercising their right to freedom of religion… The Jehovah’s Witness faith is not an extremist organization, and authorities should stop this religious persecution of its worshipers now.”

Denber is right; the Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct to practice religion freely. The moral sentiment seems just now. In that the human rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses are violated as a community of belief and practice, one largely keeping enclosed, though with some proselytizing, when Russian authorities come and raid worshippers, harass believers, and label them as an “extremist” group carte blanche.

As per the international rights frameworks of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have the right to freedom of religion and freedom of belief. The crackdowns coming from the Russian authorities during peaceful gatherings for worship violate these rights. At the same time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have garnered a mixed reputation. Internally, many hopefuls wish for Armageddon. For others who have left, there is a different view, whether a more modern scientific and rationalistic viewpoint or another ancient supernaturalistic religious take on reality. Those different views can come in a variety of forms, including prominent voices.

As seen in some of the anti-Watchtower writings of former Jehovah’s Witness Mark O’Donnell, also known by the pseudonym John Redwood (who left the faith at the age of 46), at JWSurvey who has covered some of the child abuse examples and sexual abuse instances within court cases [Ed. “Jehovah’s Witnesses Reject Plasma Injections for COVID-19” updated with the source, author, article title, and hyperlink to relevant quotation on June 8.]. Or the general cases of blood transfusion leading to the deaths of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood – Tens of Thousands Dead in Hidden Tragedy” by Lee Elder”), or in the exposure work of Douglas Quenqua in The Atlantic article entitled “A Secret Database of Child Abuse” (Kimberly O’Donnell/Kimmy O’Donnell & Mark O’Donnell are covered here, too), the complaints have been numerous from a wide range of actors on the issues within the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As with any religious group with supernatural beliefs, the behaviours within the community and with the natural world can be eccentric, e.g., belief in the supernatural or the coming of an Armageddon, and, sometimes, damaging to the health of community members, e.g., rejection, by and large, of blood transfusions. Although, there are some groups such as Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB) led by Lee Elder (Director) who work towards reform, which, probably, comes with significant backlash and condemnation against him and the AJWRB.

With blood transfusions, one can see some of the statements on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website under the article entitled “Why Don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses Accept Blood Transfusions?” The article points to what they deem myths and facts. One of those stipulated as a myth is not believing in medicine or medical treatments. However, within the frame of the article on blood transfusions themselves, the denial of blood transfusions is a denial of a medical treatment, not all, obviously. Thus, it is a self-defeating article (once again, grounded in theology).

The justifications given are not scientific or medical. They are religious. This is posed as a medical issue, at root, rather than the reality of the presentation of biblical quotes making this really posed as a religious issue. Thus, the denial of a medical treatment, which is a denial of medicine in part, emerges out of a theological or a religious doctrine, or background, with quotations from a religious series of storybooks, i.e., no better than air on matters of empirics and science, especially in the modern world.

“Both the Old and New Testaments clearly command us to abstain from blood,” the website states, “(Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10; Deuteronomy 12:23; Acts 15:28, 29) Also, God views blood as representing life. (Leviticus 17:14) So we avoid taking blood not only in obedience to God but also out of respect for him as the Giver of life.”

Even in the article “What Does the Bible Say About Blood Transfusions?“, the medical orientation on the blood transfusions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses becomes theological once more, i.e., theological posed as scientific or as medical science, which isn’t how medicine or science work. As they state:

Genesis 9:4. God allowed Noah and his family to add animal flesh to their diet after the Flood but commanded them not to eat the blood. God told Noah: “Only flesh with its soul—its blood—you must not eat.” This command applies to all mankind from that time on because all are descendants of Noah.

Leviticus 17:14. ”You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh, because the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood. Anyone eating it will be cut off.” God viewed the soul, or life, as being in the blood and belonging to him. Although this law was given only to the nation of Israel, it shows how seriously God viewed the law against eating blood.

Acts 15:20. ”Abstain . . . from blood.” God gave Christians the same command that he had given to Noah. History shows that early Christians refused to consume whole blood or even to use it for medical reasons.

…God commands that we abstain from blood because what it represents is sacred to him.—Leviticus 17:11; Colossians 1:20.

If we quoted books from Mormons or the Scientologists, would this make the practice any more substantiated? Even on the issues of simple medical treatments, the references in “Can a Christian Accept Medical Treatment?” come back to a series of sacred texts or storybooks comprised of miracles and tall tales, which was written and re-written in a truly pre-scientific era without the proper comprehension and application of medicine and medical technology seen in the modern day. The collection of books is, at a minimum, outdated and, thus, completely ill-equipped to provide medical and scientific recommendations.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses in “Why Don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses Accept Blood Transfusions?” assert the following myth and fact dichotomy:

Myth: Many Witnesses, including children, die each year as a result of refusing blood transfusions.

Fact: This statement is totally unfounded. Surgeons regularly perform such complex procedures as heart operations, orthopedic surgery, and organ transplants without the use of blood transfusions. * Patients, including children, who do not receive transfusions usually fare as well as or better than those who do accept transfusions. * In any case, no one can say for certain that a patient will die because of refusing blood or will live because of accepting it.

One can ignore the general biblical prescriptions or interpretation of the Bible asserted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses from before in this myth and fact presentation. In that, there can be the application of some of the rigorous scientific examinations of the health or mortality outcomes of individuals who function in accordance with the medical (theological) recommendations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is, at least, better because it is on more substantive grounds than simply quoting the Bible.

AJWRB Science Adviser Marvin Shilmer and Dr. Osamu Muramoto, M.D. (AJWRB Medical Adviser) examined some of the medical evidence. It was presented in “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood – Tens of Thousands Dead in Hidden Tragedy” by Lee Elder. He looked at the deaths caused as a result of the blood policies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses based on the expert analysis of Shilmer and Muramoto (Numbers below.)

Elder, in response to the same “myth and fact dichotomy” note, stated, “What evidence does the Watchtower point to in support of this claim? Beyond some studies about bloodless surgery, none that we could find.”

So, the major issue is not simply the dramatic life-and-death circumstances of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in medical circumstances. Those dramatic moments of medical peril. Rather, the issues come from “severe trauma, childbirth complications, and chronic diseases of the blood for which no effective substitutes for a blood transfusion exist,” as Elder described, “…the major killer of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are observing Watchtower’s blood policy is anemia. It is an inescapable fact that when the cells of the body fail to receive oxygen for more than just a few minutes, cell death begins to occur. Jehovah’s Witnesses are very misinformed about this, with most believing that blood and blood products amount to dangerous, even reckless medical treatment.”

People could get blood transfusions, do not, and then, because of some who adhere strictly to the theological tenets on blood, die. While Elder notes the Watchtower Society considers the position on blood transfusions as biblical, we should admit the obvious and glaring fact of the matter: These issues would not arise if we simply chalked the Bible up to storybooks rather than the holy scripture of the Lord of Lords, King of Kings.

The best medical treatments – completely unknown and unavailable at the times of the biblical authors – would simply be brought into a more comprehensive series of considerations. “Do no harm” could be more adequately applied in these circumstances, because biblical justifications would not impede the potential for consideration of the full arsenal of medical science to save lives over decades (How many? See below.).

Indeed, if we did not have to contend with some forms of selective religious fundamentalism, many patients in desperate need with some of the aforementioned chronic cases would be alive today. But they aren’t; they’re dead. The Watchtower position is based on air or a series of quotations from an ancient collection of interesting books asserted as God’s truth. Duly note, there can be a significant element of coercion within fundamentalist religious communities, too. (Also, if one wishes to see some more research on destructive cults, they can investigate the work of Steven Hassan, Robert Jay Lifton, Rick Alan Ross, and the late Margaret Singer.)

As Elder stated:

… they offer nothing substantive to support their partial ban on blood beyond vague scriptural references to not eating blood. Members are required to support whatever the current policy is, and JW children are also taught the importance of compliance from a very young age. Even non JW family members may be compelled into following Watchtower’s policy, and indoctrination is so complete, there is often significant levels of compliance among former JW’s.

Additionally, failure to comply will result in extreme shunning by other JW members, and lifelong friends who will be prohibited from eating a meal or even speaking to the non-compliant JW who does not follow the policy, or even questions it for that matter. This intrusion into the personal lives of members amounts to coercive control or undue influence, and makes free and informed consent practically impossible… Well meaning physicians and hospitals often fail to comprehend these complex issues, and unwittingly participate in JW’s martyring themselves, and their adolescent children.

Even in spite of the deserved empathy for Jehovah’s Witnesses for the non-sense committed against them by the Russian Federation authorities following from the decision of the Russian Supreme Court, and their right to exercise freedom of religion and freedom of belief based on secular international rights frameworks, there are justifiable condemnations based on the long-term cover-up of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, for decades as represented in the work of Douglas Quenqua and Mark O’Donnell (including survivors like Kimmy O’Donnell), and the staggering number of deaths following from purported prescriptions or normative biblical principles of God.

Elder, once more, in “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood – Tens of Thousands Dead in Hidden Tragedy,” stated, “As noted above, Dr. Muramoto rounded down the actual increase in mortality from 1.4% to 1%. If we use the 1.4% mortality rate (the actual conclusion reached by Kitchens) this results in casualties that are 40% higher: 1708 deaths caused by Watchtower’s blood policy in 2016, and a total of 46,544 deaths between 1961-2016.”

46,544 people needlessly dying (more, in fact, since it’s middle of 2020). 313 needlessly charged and convicted based on Russian crackdowns – more harassed, raided, and so on. Numerous child abuse survivors without justice for decades.

State autocracy crushes religious freedom while theology trumps medicine, again. Both should be reversed in substantive ways, i.e., respecting international secular human rights, in the former, and leaving science and medicine to science and medicine rather than vague scriptural references and theology, in the latter.

Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

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  1. Poorly researched and written article. As with all these religious hit-pieces, the writer goes to sources that are biased and not credible. In this case, the usual disgruntled ex religious members and their unorganized diatribe. Neutral and fair sources are not used like professors of religious studies at various universities or mainstream news publishers. Looking to learn about African American’s? Turn to KKK web sites for your information. That’s fair and even handed; right?

    From the beginning, the writer foists the bias that science is superior to religion. It’s religion; it will never be compatible with the authors ethos. It’s a faith and a philosophy, though I digress that string theory can only ever be viewed in the same way. Why write the article? One wonders if the writer is an ex-Jehovah himself given his deep ingrained bias.

    The sex abuse is the most ridiculous and commonly used ploy. All non profits grapple with this issue, from summer camps, schools, to the boy scouts. It’s in imperfect world. Most recently is the Australian Royal Commission findings dredged up and tossed out by all who hate the Jehovah’s. The facts are that 1,006 alleged cases were reviewed, stemming from the late 1940’s until the 1990’s. Not mentioned is that from this inquest a total of 3 lawsuits have been filed in court in the 2 years since the commission published it’s findings. That’s interesting and very telling. Nor the fact that for a religious organization with about 95,000 members in Australia, this works out to about 16 incidents of varying degrees per year back in the day. So, despite the fact that 1 and 6 children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18 (source WHO), in the rank and file of the Jehovah’s Witness religion, the odds are 1 in 20,000. The school district in my city can field between 150 to 300 incidents per year of sexual impropriety in various degrees with a student body of over 100,000. It’s called a nothing burger for a reason. Ironically, for a person so fond of his science, the writer doesn’t seem to use it very well in his statistics.

    It reminds of an article in the Detroit Free Press a year ago that carried a story about a ex Jehovah who committed suicide. Though her marriage, business, and finances were falling apart, the writer blamed the woman’s religion, whom she had left 6 years before. The article ran with the title, “Friends says, ex Jehovah’s Witness killed herself because she had no friends.”

    On wonders if the writer receives money from groups like FECRIS; a group that does Putin and Xi’s communist bidding.

  2. This is a veiled endorsement of the neo-Soviet cruel persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see jw-russia.org) under the guise of “human rights” activism. The author regurgitates old hatemonger arguments to infer that they eat their own children.

    No mention that they are at the forefront of bloodless treatments and techniques welcomed by the medical community. No mention of their life-saving lifestyle of traditional family and opposition to abortion. No mention of their largely law-abiding and peaceful 20 million+ human church-goers worldwide. And he calls himself a defender of human rights? A casual Google search shows his obvious bias.

  3. This is a veiled endorsement of the neo-Soviet persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses (see jw-russia.org) under the guise of “human rights” activism. The author regurgitates old hatemonger arguments to infer that they eat their own children. No mention that they are at the forefront of bloodless treatments and techniques welcomed by the medical community. No mention of their life-saving lifestyle of traditional family and opposition to abortion. No mention of their largely law-abiding and peaceful 20 million+ church-goers worldwide. And he calls himself a defender of human rights? A casual Google search shows his obvious bias.

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