A case from 1993, has been revisited by a court in Brazil and it may be decided that religious beliefs will be allowed to undermine medical ethics and the decisions of medical personnel.
The case occurred in São Vicente, on the coast of São Paulo, Brazil.
Juliana Bonfim da Silva, a girl of 13, suffering from leukaemia, spent two days in hospital waiting for a blood transfusion. Her Jehovah’s Witness parents, a reserve soldier and a housewife, refused to authorize the medical treatment.
At the time, the Public Prosecutor’s Office held that the parents had killed their daughter for religious reasons.
However, according to rules of medical ethics, doctors should have performed the transfusion irrespective of the wishes of the parents and in 2010, the São Paulo courts decided that the parents should face trial by jury for murder.
The doctor, Jose Augusto Faleiros Diniz, also a Jehovah’s Witness, refused to administer the blood transfusion. He was also accused of murder and is still awaiting trial.
However, a writ of habeas corpus and two Supreme Court votes have now effectively reversed the decision affecting the parents. Two judges are yet to vote, but even if the vote ends up tied, the defendants will be given the benefit of the doubt.
In other words, they have already won their appeal, according to their lawyer Alberto Toron.
The lawyer told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, “This is a historic judgment because it reaffirms the principle of religious freedom, and the obligation that doctors have to life. The judges understood that life is the greater good, irrespective of the religious question.”
Reinaldo Ayer, coordinator of medical ethics at the Regional Medicine Council of the State of São Paulo (CREMESP), pointed out – when there is an imminent risk to the patient’s life, the doctor must act according to Article 31 of the Code of Medical Ethics. This states that the doctor must respect the wishes of the patient, unless their life is in danger.
This possible new ruling will dictate that it cannot be considered homicide when Jehovah’s Witnesses prevent doctors from conducting blood transfusions on their children.
It is unclear what will happen to the doctor if the parents case is dismissed in this way. It is unusual for a doctor to be a Jehovah’s Witness. What is of concern is where will the line be drawn next? Will a doctor bound by a set of medical ethics be given a free licence to refuse medical treatment based upon his/her religious beliefs? Should medical ethics, medical decisions and religious beliefs be allowed to mix in this way?
Court rules in favour of blood transfusion – Folha de S. Paulo News report by Mario Cesar Carvalho and Reynaldo Turollo JR. Link
Detailed information about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions