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Refusal of Blood Transfusions: Religious Identity and Modern Medical Authority

Refusal of Blood Transfusions

Refusal of Blood Transfusions

Małgorzata Rajtar PhD

The research project focuses on individual and collective understandings of standard medical treatment resulting from religious beliefs in general, and the refusal of blood transfusions by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (officially: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society) particularly within the context of healthcare policy and legal regulations of the German state. Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a millenarian movement established in the U.S. in the 1870s and present in Germany since the 1900s already, expressed little initial interest in health and sickness (except for their early animosity against vaccinations), they have become probably the best known religious proponents of the “no blood transfusion” policy in the last decades. Since 1945, when the Watchtower, a flagship magazine of the movement, denounced the movement of blood between bodies as “God-dishonoring” as based on, among others, Genesis 9:3-4, Leviticus 17:13-14, and Acts 15:28-29, Witnesses started to present a serious problem for physicians and worsened their public relations with the state.

The project explores the relationship between religious, legal, ethical, and emotional issues emerging from the refusal of blood transfusion by the Witnesses. These issues are particularly relevant in light of the public law corporation (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts) status that was received by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany in June 2006 and the legal changes in the domain of patient’s disposition (e.g. §1901a Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) in 2009. I am particularly interested in the perspective of involved Witnesses, but also those of medical personnel and lawyers that have dealings with the members of this community.

An ethnographic fieldwork was conducted primarily in Berlin between October 2011 and April 2012. A preliminary two-month fieldwork was carried out in summer 2010 (Funding: German Academic Exchange Service/DAAD). 

Runtime: 09.2011-07.2013



Funding: Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers)

Host and Host Institute: Prof. Dr. Hansjörg Dilger, Institut für Ethnologie FU Berlin

SFB 1171 Affective Societies
Berlin Southern Theory Lecture