April 3, 2002
Alta. court to hear appeal of Jehovah's Witness teen over blood transfusions
CALGARY (CP) -- A 16-year-old Jehovah's Witness who is being forced to receive blood transfusions will try to convince a judge Thursday that she is mature enough to choose her own treatment in her battle against leukemia.
The girl's lawyer plans to ask the Court of Queen's Bench to overturn a lower court judgment that said the girl doesn't have the maturity to refuse the transfusions, partly due to her religious upbringing. The Witnesses believe that the Bible prohibits consuming blood in any way.
"I find that her life experience, her social experience has been very limited," provincial court Judge Karen Jordan ruled on Feb. 18.
"That is not unusual in the context of the environment in which she was raised," Jordan said. "Many children are limited by various social and religious circumstances.
"It is not a criticism, it is simply a finding of fact."
The judge gave the Alberta government temporary custody of the girl and granted a medical treatment order allowing the transfusions.
The girl and her family cannot be named because she is now a temporary ward of the province.
Since the court ruling, the girl has had intensive chemotherapy along with 12 blood transfusions. She is scheduled for another 18. Her doctors say she is certain to die without transfusions, compared with a 40-50 per cent chance of survival with them. Her health has now improved to the point where she's been able to go home on weekends.
Lawyer David Gnam has argued the treatment violates his client's constitutional rights to equality and freedom of religion.
"Her rights as a mature minor, as a person capable of making the medical decision, are being refused simply because of her arbitrary age," Gnam said.
Jordan ruled after hearing testimony from the girl, her parents, doctors and child welfare workers at a makeshift courtroom at the Alberta Children's Hospital.
The case has caused a rift in the family. The girl's two sisters and mother support her stand against the transfusions, while her father has consented to them and says he is now shunned by the Jehovah's Witnesses as a result.
The father says his daughter would likely be dead if the family hadn't moved to Alberta from Belleville, Ont., three years ago. Her lawyer says his client wouldn't be battling the issue in court if she were living in another jurisdiction.
In Alberta, the Child Welfare Act states that the province has to protect children under 18 by ensuring they get essential medical treatment.
In Ontario and several other provinces, such laws affect those under 16. Ontario also has its Health Care Consent Act, which allows children regardless of age to decide their own medical treatment as long as they are fully informed, understand the consequences and are individually deemed a mature minor.
"I understand there is always a risk in my not taking the blood transfusion and that there is a good possibility that I might die," the Calgary girl told court. "And I do not want to die."
But accepting blood transfusions would be disrespectful to God, she said.
"Because of all the things that he has done for me, such a loving and merciful God, and he does not ask for much in putting down his principles, and that would be turning my back on him.
"I don't think I could do that. That would hurt me too much."
Her tearful mother testified that she supports her daughter's wish to refuse transfusions -- even though it may lead to death.
"It upsets me at the thought, but I have my hope from learning through the Bible that Jehovah God promises us a paradise," she said.
"I know I will see her there because she died with her faith intact."
The girl's father testified that his daughter has had a sheltered life and is too immature to understand the concept of death.
"She's had very little life experience," he said. "She's never really seen anyone die or seen a tragedy or experienced a traumatic experience."
He recalled several conversations between church members and his daughter during recent hospital visits.
"They were encouraging her to die for her faith," he told court.
"And that Jehovah would look upon her as doing the right thing, or they would say that she was doing the right thing by dying and not accepting blood transfusions."
Gnam intends to introduce new evidence showing that his client has gained valuable life and death experiences while in hospital.
"She has been in the position that Judge Jordan has said she never had experienced before," he said.
Gnam has also applied to the court for his client to go to California or Ontario to receive alternative treatment that doesn't involve blood transfusions.
Alberta government officials said they will allow the move only if her doctors approve the proposed treatment.