L.A. Times fails to draw religious blood

Did you hear the one about the atheist doctor asked to treat Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t believe in blood transfusions?

Well, it’s no joke, as the Los Angeles Times highlighted in a Column One story — the newspaper’s most prime real estate — this week:

The Times’ compelling opening:

Christina Blouvan-Cervantes had been battling aggressive leukemia when her blood count plummeted and she landed in the emergency room in Fresno. Her doctors told her a blood transfusion was her only hope. But her faith wouldn’t allow her to receive one.

So she turned to one of the only doctors who could possibly keep her alive: a committed atheist who views her belief system as wholly irrational.

Dr. Michael Lill, head of the blood and marrow transplant program at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, is a last recourse for Jehovah’s Witnesses with advanced leukemia.

They arrive at Lill’s door out of desperation and a desire to live. Many specialists decline to treat them because of their biblically centered refusal to accept blood transfusions, a mainstay of conventional care for the cancer.

Lill thinks their refusal is risky and illogical but nevertheless has devised a way to treat them that accommodates their religious convictions.

Despite his belief that God doesn’t exist, he has become a hero to many devout believers.

It’s not a terrible story at all. In fact, I’d describe it as almost adequate.

On the positive side, the writer certainly treats the religious beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with respect.

The problem, from a GetReligion perspective, is that the piece handles the religion element in such a casual, shallow way. My suspicion after reading the entire 1,500 words was that a health writer, not a Godbeat pro, produced the story (and I was right). Too bad the Times didn’t employ an editor with religion expertise to ask simple questions that could have improved the report dramatically.

For instance:

— Consider this paragraph:

Jehovah’s Witnesses draw their beliefs about blood from a literal interpretation of the Bible, which repeatedly warns against its consumption. Among the passages often cited by adherents: “You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water.”

Why not cite the specific biblical reference (Deuteronomy 15:23)?

— And this graf:

During Lill’s rounds one recent morning at Cedars-Sinai, he washed his hands and went into the room of Kyle Hester, a 21-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from Fresno who was waiting for a stem cell transplant. Hester lay in his bed, hooked to an IV and an oxygen tube. His face was pale and his arms swollen. A book of Scripture lay open beside him.

What book of Scripture are we talking about? Is it the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own New World Translation?

— And this passage:

Wanda Smith, a Jehovah’s Witness from Texas, sat on an examination table in Cedars-Sinai’s outpatient cancer center. Her husband, Will, clasped a blue bag filled with medications.

Lill greeted the couple and launched into routine questions about her recovery from her stem cell transplant: Any coughing or shortness of breath? Nausea or vomiting? How is your appetite?

Smith, 65, announced in a Southern accent that she had gained six pounds in a week. Lill teased her about a Jehovah’s Witness tenet: “And you aren’t supposed to be celebrating Christmas or anything else.”

“No, I didn’t,” she laughed. “I just got my appetite back.”

You get the vague impression that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas. But why not use the opportunity to share a few details about their beliefs, including why they don’t celebrate Christmas, Easter or other holidays they consider pagan?

— Finally, this graf:

She heard about Lill through her church, and soon she was undergoing chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai. After returning home, she ended up in the emergency room with a high fever. As she moaned and struggled to breathe, doctors and nurses pleaded with her to accept a blood transfusion. Barely able to speak, she scribbled a note: “Please don’t give me blood.”

The Religion Newswriters Association’s online stylebook notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses call their gathering places “Kingdom Halls,” not “churches.”

That’s a minor detail maybe.

But the lack of attention to it seems to exemplify the story’s overall indifference to the religion angle — both in terms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith and the atheist doctor’s lack thereof.

Photo via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    Yeah, a casual, almost aloof attitude toward their faith.

    But overall not terrible. We have seen worse. Compared to some of the drek GR has been post-morteming in the last few days, it is almost Pulitzer material.

  • Will

    Perhaps the story could have used more specifics about the “stem cell transplant”. How does it fit with the usual media line with equates “stem cells” with “embryonic stem cells”?

  • Jon in the Nati

    A J-Dub story? UH OH!

    **hides behind TMatt, braces for comment onslaught**

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I wonder if Ms. Gorman presumed more widespread familiarity with Jehovah’s Witness tenets than exists. She does seem to write about them with respect. Or if she and her editors found that in order to explain some of them in more detail they had to insert so much extra information that it sidetracked the story (a sidebar could have solved that problem pretty easily, I imagine).

    On the other hand I agree that the religious differential here is one of the story’s most fascinating aspects and it is not fully covered. Something from an authority on Witness theology commenting on the contrast or even irony that in order to fulfill their religious beliefs they must depend on a man who shares none of them? Something more about Dr. Lill, who though an atheist has become familiar enough with Witness beliefs to fondly tease his patients about them? How did he learn that this particular therapy would be acceptable to Witness beliefs?

    It may have been a matter of space, I suppose. I’d have loved to have seen this in a magazine section with some room to work out those ideas as well as the ones in earlier comments about the differences between this therapy and some of the embyonic stem cell research that’s drawn a lot of fire.

    This seems like a pretty good story but I too wish it had some of the things that would make it the great one it could easily be.

  • http://www.jwfacts.com Ricky Smith

    **NEWS** Jehovah’s Witnesses take blood (now).

    They take all fractions of blood. This includes hemoglobin, albumin, clotting factors, cryosupernatant and cryopoor too, and many, many, others. If one adds up all the blood fractions the JWs takes, it equals a whole unit of blood. Any, many of these fractions are made from thousands upon thousands of units of donated blood.Jehovah’s Witnesses can take Bovine *cow’s blood* as long as it is euphemistically called synthetic* Hemopure*.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses also take whole blood, as long as it’s called “current therapy.” This is something not found in medical literature, per se. But, it is described by the religion as a taking of blood from a person, mixing it with compounds in a lab, and later retransfusing the blood back into the patient. So, it appears that JWs can have their blood separated from their body and later reuse it too.

  • http://www.jwfacts.com Ricky Smith

    The patient in the LA times article is being infused with ‘stem cells’.
    Now aren’t stem cells from the bone marrow precursor to blood cells which is forbidden by Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine?

    Stem Cells O-Kay
    Blood cells not O-Kay

    Where in the Bible are these instructions?

  • Will

    So is “current therapy” synonymous with “autologous transfusion”?

  • Will

    Simple. The Bible nowhere says “Do not eat marrow”.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Ricky,

    Either talk about journalism or take your advocacy elsewhere. Just spiked one of your comments.

  • marcus

    Actually, the majority of what ricky is stating is false. Take hemopure, its never been approved by the fda. And if you go to hemopures site, it says it is unavailable outside south africa and even there no more hemopure is being produced…ricky, if one jw took it in a clinical trial, it does not mean all jws take it….and inferring via banket statements does not make it “news”. However you do see word for word, rickys spam on most google news articles mentioning the keyword “jehovah”. Someone neds to write a book on hate trolls.

  • http://www.jwfacts.com Ricky Smith

    All my comments on Jehovah’s Witnesses accepting blood are factual Bovine derived *hemopure* has been used by JW for years,especially in Australia still up at the news site.

    How does this my journalism make me a ‘hate troll’ that is a personal attack.

  • Lucy

    I’m not quite understanding the difference between stem cells and actual blood cells? The article definitely could have explained more along those lines and WHY this treatment is suddenly acceptable to Jehovah’s Witnesses when it wasn’t before?

    And the journalism is actually well-stated, in the fact that she was reaching out to normal people. Normal people won’t understand “New World Translation” – they are accustomed to Scripture or Bible. They equate all religious places to “Church”. The article wasn’t discussing holidays, so more on that would simply detract from the subject.

  • http://www.jwfacts.com Ricky Smith

    Cow’s blood saves life of crash victim procedure | Mail

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/…/Cows-blood-saves-life-crash-victim-world-p

    May 5, 2011 – The cow’s blood product was painstakingly administered over two days to … of blood from cows blood or a humans, Jehovah’s Witnesses are

    Still up on the news google it

  • Will

    Who is allowed in your club of “normal” people?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    The article wasn’t discussing holidays, so more on that would simply detract from the subject.

    I disagree. The Christmas reference at it stands now is unclear and makes no sense.

    I also disagree that “normal” people prefer vague reporting.

  • http://theobservatorium.blogspot.com Nate Lenz

    I guess I’ll have to read the whole article to figure out why it was acceptable to Christina to have an atheist – who doesn’t respect her religion – give her a transfusion that a non-atheist doctor – who respects her faith – would have given her had she agreed to it.

  • Tim Riches

    I’m struggling to understand the problem with the article being referenced. The author wasn’t showing proper deference? All the information anyone needs on the Jehovah’s Witnesses is available via the internet, including what they actually believe. Most people understand only what they don’t believe, which is a fine legacy for a religion that has been door-knocking for more than a century. Read the scriptural basis and agree or disagree, let’s not have any hogwash about proper respect being shown by the LA Times for lack of proper citations.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Ah, the Internet. I didn’t consider that. No need for newspapers to include relevant facts, context and background in stories. Readers can just Google for the important information.

  • Tim Riches

    Yes, the internet. Where religions are throttled in bed while they sleep.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are adamant that they do not go to Churches. So it is not a minor detail at all, it is a sign the writer has no clue.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I would advise people against trying to use their own analysis on the religion of other people. I am glad that the journalist was more willing to let people have their own theology than some commenters here.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusion is no skin off my nose. Let people live their religions in peace.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    A couple of reminders:

    1. This is a journalism website. Focus comments on the media issues. We’re not here to debate beliefs.

    2. Be nice. If you want to be a jerk, please do so at another website.

  • scumdog1

    The concept of the article as a whole was a little contrived. Religious people meet non-believers ALL the time. The story of a woman undergoing bloodless surgery had the potential to be very compelling, however the whole believer/non believer thing just dumbed it down. Badly. In my opinion, a better wrapper for her story would be tech focused, and maybe a better question would be: Why do we rely on battlefield medicine from WW1, when better, cheaper options with lower recovery times are available?

  • Chris

    Not on a journalism topic, but I can’t resist. In answer to #23–blood product and blood transfusion became possible during WW1, but the present system, understanding of transfusion immunology, and technology of transfusion are not of the early 20th century. Why do people always decry medical technology that is “old”. Most modern abdominal surgery was pretty well worked out over a century ago. You say “no” to surgery for your perforated appendix because the technique is old.
    Bottom line–big surgical procedures and chemotherapeutic techniques require the back-up of blood products. This is a big problem for patients who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. The medical community deals with it–and this is a good story of how one physician does. Take both as a given, and then begin reading.

  • Newspaper Reader

    People aren’t reading a newspaper to get religion. Facts about why a Jehovah’s Witnesses believe what they do aren’t really important and would have been really annoying to slog through. The journalist — or the editor — did the right thing by leaving details out. It’s not a church pamphlet. All that is important is that they don’t accept blood because of some creepy interpretation of the Christian bible. The reasons why are only interesting to Christians. The rest of us don’t care.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Why do people always decry anything that is “old”?

  • Chris

    grace from an unlikely source

  • sari

    But the lack of attention to it seems to exemplify the story’s overall indifference to the religion angle — both in terms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith and the atheist doctor’s lack thereof.

    As someone who tries to live within a religious framework that falls outside the mainstream, I really liked the article. Yes, the journalist could have been more careful about certain factoids (Kingdom Halls vs. churches). Yes, the science could have been better explained. Still, the basic premise, that an atheist doctor provided unconventional medicine to conform to JWs’ beliefs, was maintained throughout. The article was respectful of the JWs adherence to their religion, even when such adherence could have deadly consequences, and rightly highlighted many doctors’ lack of respect.

    I think it is very hard for people whose religions impose few restrictions on their lives to understand what it’s like to live within the parameters of an all-encompassing belief system, one where religion addresses every aspect of a person’s life. Not only does the MSM fail to get it; so do most readers (evidenced here by a number of snarky remarks, including the creepy interpretation). Rather than present them as freaks or anomalies, why not acknowledge that they are simply trying to do G-d’s will as their belief system dictates.

    It’s likely the JWs maintain a sort of informal list of doctors and other professionals who will work within the boundaries of their belief systems.

  • J

    Nit picking! Your objections were extremely minor, not wrong, but minor. I’d have written the GR post as more of an explanation of how the article is supported by the facts, with the extremely minor exception of the Kingdom Halls.

  • zjerome Coates

    I am a Jehovah’s Witness. I felt the article was well done written in the usual newpaper sense. As above, some details could have been given, but it covered the main details quite well. Keep up your good work.

  • Graeme

    The article was respectfully written and adequately covered the Witnesses’ purported reasons for refusing blood. What it did not address, however, is the level of coercion within the religion regarding blood treatments.

    JWs have no right of a conscience decision on whether they accept blood or not. The religion’s Governing Body long ago reached a dogmatic decision that accepting a blood transfusion was no different to ingesting blood as food, despite the fact that the body treats it in entirely different ways when taken orally or intravenously.

    It has significantly weakened its position on what blood components are acceptable (despite not one of those components being identified in the Bible), yet continues to expel any members who do accept blood, and then order that they be shunned for life by all friends and family members. Members are not permitted to voice any disagreement with the blood policy. Members are also subjected to intense scrutiny by Hospital Liaison Committee members if they are admitted to hospital, and face a judicial committee (secret church trial) if it is suspected they did take blood.

    JW literature also highlights and exaggerates the “dangers” of blood transfusions, yet never ever discusses the benefits. Witnesses are subject to a blunt form of information control and are warned of the “dangers” of reading any literature that criticizes their teachings.

    Any media treatment of the JW insistence on receiving blood-free treatments needs to include a mention of such coercion, which may help to shine a little light on the control methods employed by this religion.

  • John Lassiter

    Did you mean gaffe, instead of graf?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    No, I meant graf (journalism slang for “paragraph”).

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Nate Lenz –

    an atheist – who doesn’t respect her religion

    ‘Disagree’ and ‘disrespect’ are different things. And yes, the article makes that very clear early on. In the doctor’s own words:

    “Just because someone makes a decision which I would view as the wrong decision … doesn’t mean at that point in time I say, ‘No, I am not going to look after you anymore,’ ” he said. “I try and treat people’s religious beliefs with respect.”

  • sari

    ‘Disagree’ and ‘disrespect’ are different things. And yes, the article makes that very clear early on. In the doctor’s own words:

    “Just because someone makes a decision which I would view as the wrong decision … doesn’t mean at that point in time I say, ‘No, I am not going to look after you anymore,’ ” he said. “I try and treat people’s religious beliefs with respect.”

    My take as well, Ray. I’d like to see him teach a class on the appropriate way to deal with multiculturalism in the medical environment.

  • http://www.happywivesclub.com Fawn

    This is my first time to this site and I’ve read three recent blog posts and am a bit confused. Is this blog about a specific religion, Christianity, or is the point that the media simply doesn’t understand any religion? Thanks.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Fawn,

    What we do is look at how the mainstream media handles religion news. We praise it when it’s good and offer constructive criticism for areas that could be improved.

    You can read this post for more information about what we do and why we’re here.