In my freshman year at law school, I heard about this famous 1884 English case.[1] The story goes that four sailors, Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, found themselves shipwrecked. They drifted and drifted for days in a lifeboat until finally Dudley and Stephens decided to kill the then comatose Parker in order to secure their own survival by feeding off of his flesh and hydrating off of his blood. Classical cannibalism. The deed was done and all three remaining sailors “partook” of Parker. Now, riddle me this: Would it be correct to equate organ transplants to that level of cannibalism?

Current Position

The current position taken by Jehovah’s Witnesses – as authorised by the Governing Body – regarding organ transplants is that they’re okay. In a ‘Questions From Readers’ section, the question posed was, ‘Should congregation action be taken if a baptized Christian accepts a human organ transplant, such as of a cornea or a kidney?’ The 1980 Watchtower replied:

‘Regarding transplantation of human tissue or bone from one human to another, this is a matter of conscientious decision by each one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some Christians might feel that taking into their bodies any tissue or body part from another human is cannibalistic. They might hold that the transplanted human material is intended to become part of the recipient’s body to keep him alive and functioning. They might not see it as fundamentally different from consuming flesh through the mouth.’ […] Other sincere Christians today may feel that the Bible does not definitely rule out medical transplants of human organs. They may reason that in some cases the human material is not expected to become a permanent part of the recipient’s body. […] It may be argued too, that organ transplants are different from cannibalism since the “donor” is not killed to supply food. […] Clearly, personal views and conscientious feelings vary on this issue of transplantation. It is well known that the use of human material for consumption varies all the way from minor items, such as hormones and corneas, to major organs, such as kidneys and hearts.[2] [Italics mine]

Again in 1990, under the heading ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses – The Surgical/Ethical Challenge’ in the ‘Blood Brochure,’ the organisation said:

‘The Witnesses do not feel that the bible comments directly on organ transplants; hence, decisions regarding cornea, kidney or other tissue transplants must be made by the individual Witness.’[3]

Under ‘Question From Readers,’ 1984, the question posed was, ‘Could a Christian accept a bone-marrow transplant, since blood is made in the marrow?’ The Watchtower answered:

‘Since red cells originate in the red bone marrow, do the scriptures class marrow with blood? No. In fact, animal marrow is spoken of like any other flesh that could be eaten. […] Hence, the Christian would have to resolve for himself whether – to him – the bone-marrow graft would amount to simple flesh or would be unbled tissue. Additionally, since a marrow graft is a form of transplant, the Scriptural aspect of human organ transplants should be considered.’[4]

At this point, you may be wondering what cannibalism has to do with organ transplants. The fact is, the aforementioned Watchtower articles address this particular subject because of the position previously held by the organisation.

What must be borne in mind is that the Watchtower organisation – more specifically the Governing Body – views itself as God’s sole channel of communication of spiritual truth here on earth, having allegedly been inspected and appointed to that position back in 1919 by the invisible Jesus. In other words, if an instruction comes from the Watchtower, it has authority from God. Why? Because Watchtower is (allegedly) God’s spirit directed organisation.

So, okay, organ transplants are allowed. But, now, was this always the case? Consider the following.

Previous Position

The Awake! of 1967 had this to say:

‘Humans were allowed by God to eat animal flesh and to sustain their human lives by taking the lives of animals […]. Did this include eating human flesh, sustaining one’s life by means of the body or part of another human, alive or dead? No! That would be cannibalism. […] Jehovah clearly made a distinction between the lives of animals and lives of humans. […] Those who submit to [organ transplants] are thus living off the flesh of another human. That is cannibalistic.’[5] [Italics mine]

That article went on to describe organ donation – even after death – as a ‘mutilation’ or ‘misuse’ of one’s body, thus demonstrably manifesting a lack of respect and appreciation for God’s creation.

It is interesting to take note of what the late Governing Body member (who also served as the Watchtower’s fifth president), Milton Henschel, then 48 years-old, said a year later, 1968, when interviewed by Free Press newspaper on the subject of organ transplants:

‘Transplanting organs is really cannibalism. […] In transplants, you are taking something from another body to sustain your life. […] If a person gains another five years, because of a transplant, what has he gained, if he loses the future?’[6] [Italics mine]

Detroit Free Press - Heart Transplants Held Cannibalism - Milton Henschel (July 6, 1968)

Transplants equated to cannibalism by Governing Body member, Milton HenschelFree Press (July 6, 1968).

In an Awake! interview, 1974, with an unnamed Witness doctor who had served as a Presiding Overseer[7] in one congregation, the Witness doctor is reported as having said:

‘Today much also is made of transplanting various organs – kidney, heart, lungs and livers. But regarding these procedures, I am reminded of the comment that my father [who himself was a doctor] once made. I was home from medical school and performed a vasectomy on one of his patients who had asked to be sterilized. I was proud of my newly learnt technique and asked my father what he thought of it. He replied: “The patient is no doubt pleased, but I wonder what the creator thinks about it.” Because of what I have reason to believe is the Creator’s view of organ transplants, I have serious reservations as to their Scriptural propriety.’[8] [Italics mine]

This Witness doctor’s understanding of the ‘Creators view,’ namely, that organ transplants are wrong, is undoubtedly a direct attribution of what he was taught by the Watchtower organisation, specifically, the Governing Body, through the printed pages of their flagship magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!

Views of Former Members

Organ transplants and the issue of blood transfusions have often times overlapped. Scientific explanations and semantics have often times created confusion. Consider this, in The John Ankerberg Show, 1999, ex-Jehovah’s Witness Joan Cetnar explained:

‘But I think what’s interesting, and what Witnesses should realize, is that in their own booklet, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood,[9] on page 41 it says, “Blood transfusion is essentially an organ transplant.” And so it is. It’s just using a different word, “transfuse,” because we’re talking about liquid instead of a solid, basically. And so if a Witness would look in his own blood booklet, he’s allowed to have a transfusion.’[10]

Jehovah's Witnesses and the Question of Blood (1977).

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood (1977). This 64-page booklet was published at a time when the organisation still held the position that  organ transplants were cannibalism, thus it equated transfusions to transplants.

If this view is correct, and if the current position on organ transplants is maintained, then one could argue that blood transfusions should likewise be allowed.

On the same talk show, ex-Jehovah’s Witness Duane Magnani said:

‘Up until 1980, the Society had forbid organ transplants because they considered it actually cannibalism—taking someone’s body into your body, alright? But by 1980, apparently so many Jehovah’s Witnesses had died for lack of the medical care that they could have received with an organ transplant that they changed the teaching. Now, what’s interesting, and what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are now beginning to understand, is that an organ transplant contains whole blood. In fact, in the Watchtower of May 15, 1984, the question is pointed out to Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Could a Christian accept a bone marrow transplant,” now, get this, “since blood is made in the marrow?”

In other words, when you get a bone marrow transplant, you are receiving another person’s blood, and it’s like a time bomb. That bone marrow is there for only one purpose and that’s to produce human blood in your body—another person’s human blood. So when you receive a bone marrow transplant, and that’s allowed by Jehovah’s Witnesses organization and all other types of transplants, you are receiving whole blood. Jehovah’s Witnesses are receiving blood today.’[11]

Still on the same show, the talk show host, John Ankerberg, after relating recent cultish tragedies in America popularly known as ‘Jonestown’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ where adherents committed mass suicides at the instruction of their spiritual leaders, Jones and Applewhite, respectively, ex-Jehovah’s Witness Elder David Reed, commented:

‘Well, those other groups made the headlines because you saw large numbers of dead bodies that could be scanned on the TV cameras. Jehovah’s Witnesses dying, refusing blood transfusions or organ transplants or vaccinations, are dying one at a time, usually in a very private situation without making the news.’[12]

Unspoken Consequences

So for 13 years (1967-1980) the official position held by the organisation was to equate organ transplants to cannibalism. Consequently, seasoned Witnesses would refuse any transplants. True, there is no indication that failure to comply with this view would result in some official action by the organisation, viz, disfellowshipping. But, still, logically now, if Witnesses were made to believe that this view was God’s view, then it’s fair to assume that several Witnesses, who might have otherwise been in need of surgical intervention, must have refused the recommended procedures. Such being the case, it is reasonable to conclude that a number of Witnesses, in their resolute desire to do what is pleasing to “God,” must have forfeited their lives as a result.

Now, imagine, what a distasteful and anti-climactic affair it must have been when the official position was changed, back in 1980. Can you imagine, if your son, daughter, mother, wife etc. faithfully refused an organ transplant, despite medical recommendation, and shortly dies as a result, with the bona fide belief that they’ve done something pleasing to God. Then, a few weeks down the line, you peel the pages of the March 15, 1980 Watchtower magazine, hot off the press, and read the newly changed position: Organ transplants aren’t necessarily tantamount to cannibalism. The agony.

What a damnable situation. To be sure, a wasteful and unwarranted death.

Who do we account for this? Would it be fair to hold the organisation accountable – if not holistically, then, at the very least, contributorily? My feeling has always been: Never hurry yourself to give someone advice until and unless you are prepared to share the consequences of your advice. Will Watchtower, “God’s channel of communication,” share this consequence? Will they accept vicarious liability?


So, there we are on the subject of organ transplants; like our shipwrecked sailors, transplants were once slated as ‘cannibalistic,’ ‘mutilation,’ and ‘misuse.’ But now… post-1980, they’re acceptable.

A thinking Witness might get to wondering if the position on blood transfusions will similarly follow suit. Well, with the several tweaks the Governing Body has been making on fractions of late, only time will tell.


[1] R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC.

[2] ‘Question From Readers’ The Watchtower March 15, 1980 page 31.

[3] How Blood Can Save Your Life ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses – The Surgical/Ethical Challenge’ page 28; also the ‘Witness Position on Therapy’ Awake! July 22, 1982 page 26.

[4] Could a Christian Accept a Bone Marrow Transplant, Since Blood is Made in the Marrow?’ The Watchtower May 15, 1984 page 31.

[5] ‘Question From Readers’ Awake! November 15, 1967 pages 702-704.

[6] Hiley H. Ward ‘Heart Transplants Held Cannibalism’ Free Press July 1968.

[7] The equivalent of what is now called the Co-ordinator of the Body of Elders (“COBE”).

[8] ‘My Life as a Surgeon’ Awake! March 22, 1974 page 23.

[9] Published in 1977. This 64-page booklet was released on Day 1 of the “Joyful Workers” District Assembly, in an afternoon talk that bears the same title.

[10] David Reed ‘Ex-Jehovah’s Witness Convention’ The John Ankerberg Show, last accessed at on July 14, 2015.

[11] Duane Magnani ibid.

[12] David Reed ibid.