People who Blame me don’t know how much I love my daughter: Jehovah’s Witness dad who reject blood transfusion
Emmanuel Onokpise is the father of the baby who was allegedly rescued by officials of the Lagos State Government and the Office of the Public Defender and given blood transfusion for jaundice, after he declined the medical procedure in line with his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. In an encounter with ALEXANDER OKERE, he talks about the controversy surrounding his baby’s treatment
What exactly was wrong with your baby before she was taken to hospital?
The doctors informed us after she was delivered that she had jaundice. She was being treated for it.
What did the diagnosis in the hospital reveal?
(It revealed) a case of jaundice.
What kind of treatment did the medical personnel recommend?
The doctor at the hospital of birth said he needed to transfuse her with blood because that was the remedy he knew, and he admitted that his hospital was not as equipped as another hospital that could treat her without blood transfusion
It was alleged that you discharged the baby against medical advice. Why did you decide to do that?
The doctor at the hospital of birth discharged my daughter because he could not treat her without administering blood transfusion, which I had considered as not being in the best interest of the child. He referred us to a better equipped hospital that could treat the baby without administering blood and wrote a referral letter to that effect. So, we did not have any problem with the hospital.
When you took your child away from the hospital, what alternative did you have in mind to save its life?
When we were discharged from Avon Hospital, we were referred to Outreach Children Specialist Hospital, which we were informed could treat our daughter’s condition without blood. When we were discharged from Outreach Children Specialist Hospital, because we could not continue to afford the charges, we sustained the treatment of our daughter with traditional therapy against jaundice until she was readmitted to Massey Children Hospital, where she was being treated successfully with erythropoietin that we purchased.
Were you not concerned that a baby that weighed “2.2kg at birth” and less than “1.7kg” when she was allegedly rescued could die from the condition with the prescribed treatment?
The doctors at all the three hospitals did not inform us of any danger of death to the baby due to the weight. They only said the baby might be negatively affected if the jaundice was not treated, and we vigorously pursued her treatment in two other hospitals other than the first.
Some may say that you are too rigid with your religious beliefs. Were you willing to risk the life of your baby for that?
I can understand why they hold that view. It is because they do not know how much I love my daughter and all the steps we took to get her proper treatment. We exhausted all our finances and were contacting one doctor after another to get the best treatment for her. What we simply wanted was for the medical staff to treat our daughter effectively without the risks associated with a blood transfusion and in a way that leaves us with a good conscience before God, the giver of life.
You were said to have rejected the blood transfusion because it was against your religious beliefs. Why do you think blood transfusion is bad?
I have read of many dangers associated with blood transfusion. I have also read of medical cases where people who were treated by doctors without blood fared better than those who were treated with blood transfusion. Furthermore, Jehovah, the creator, expressly prohibits the ingestion of blood. He made this law both before and during the Christian era.
What happened when the baby was eventually taken away from you? Were you manhandled?
I would simply say that the law enforcement officers were acting on the misinformation that our daughter was dying with the implication that someone else loved our daughter more than us, thereby making it seem that we deserved a certain kind of treatment. But we are stable.
Do you think you were unfairly treated by the state government?
I feel that the government was presented with non-factual information, and that they acted as they deemed best with the information they had. Perhaps, fairness would have required that they heard us also, but that wasn’t done.
Were you disrespected?
It does not seem like something any parents would pray for, to wake up in the morning to the visit of total strangers, some with guns, insisting on taking their beloved baby away.
Having received blood transfusion, did it change anything about the baby or your faith?
We have observed God’s law on blood for ourselves and our baby. We do not take responsibility for the actions of the government. We love our baby dearly and pray she gets well and does not develop any future health complications traceable to the well-known risks of blood transfusion. We look forward to training her to be a responsible citizen alongside her siblings.
Some people believe you were cruel to the baby by putting her life in danger and suggested that you should be sued. What’s your reaction to that?
Again, we can understand such views based on misinformation concerning us and our daughter. We did all that we could as loving parents to ensure our baby gets the best available medical care within our means, including borrowing to pay for her treatment at Outreach Hospital. My wife and I have been going to the hospital every day to look after our baby even when we are not allowed to see her. We have been paying for medication prescribed by the doctors at Massey Children Hospital. We are waiting for her to be discharged so we can take her home. Does that describe cruelty?
Are you aware of the current condition of the baby?
The doctors have not given me any report and I do not have free access to her. My wife was even prevented from breastfeeding the baby. But through every means we can seek, we keep checking on her well-being.
The state government, through the Office of the Public Defender, said the child would be returned to you if you were “calm”. What’s your response to that?
My wife and I are peace-loving people as can be attested to by others. Of course, we look forward to taking our daughter home and raising her. To someone else, she is only “the child”, but to us, she is our daughter, a gift from Jehovah.
Do you plan to sue the state government and the hospital?
Our daughter deserves parental love and personalised care and bonding with us. So our overriding interest right now is that she should get well and come home with us.
It is not clear where the hospital got blood for the transfusion. Whose blood was given to your child?
We do not know where they got the blood.
No parent has power to infringe on child’s rights –Adeyemi, OPD Director on blood transfusion saga
The Lagos State Government through the Office of the Public Defender recently intervened to save the life of new-born baby of Mr and Mrs Emmanuel Onikpise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The parents were opposed to blood transfusion but doctors said the baby needed a blood transfusion to be saved. State Director, OPD, Mrs Olayinka Adeyemi, tells SIMON UTEBOR why the state took the baby from its parents
How was the Office of the Public Defender able to discover Mr and Mrs Emmanuel Onikpise’s baby’s case?
We got an emergency call that a child was likely to die if nothing was done quickly to save that child. We became very concerned. First, we tried to investigate the incident. We went to the hospital as the informant gave us the hospital’s name. We went to the hospital to get the facts. When we got there, we also noticed that the hospital itself could not give us any useful information other than to confirm that Mrs Onikpise and her baby were delivered in the hospital. They said when the parents did not like the idea of a blood transfusion; they took the baby from the hospital.
We learnt that they did so due to their religious belief as they did not want their baby to have blood transfusion. The hospital did not give any other information more than that. The same person who gave us the information kept telling us that we needed to intervene quickly and that if nothing was done, the child could die within few days. So, on January 7, 2020, we realised that we could not expect the hospital to give us the information because of the ethics of their profession. Therefore, we had to approach the court.
We obtained a court order and the hospital was able to give us the details of the family – where they live and all that. When we got to their house, we saw that the child was very lean and fragile. The mother was relieved when she saw us as she was affected by the condition of the child. Later, we talked about the matter and she said she was going to call the baby’s father. When the father came, he came back with some members of a religious faith and the situation became a bit rowdy.
For us, we did not want any harm to come to the child. We decided to involve the police and the parents and the baby were taken back to the hospital. Thereafter, we got another order from the court. After evaluating the child, we realised that initially they said they were in the hospital and that the doctors were familiar with that type of case. So, the doctors were taking care of the baby, using alternative means. But the doctors realised that the child might likely die if they did not change the method of treatment and they did what was necessary for the child’s survival.
How did OPD ensure that the child had the blood transfusion?
They (doctors) thought they could use alternative therapy to save the child but they realised the method did not work and they had to use blood transfusion. The mother insisted they should try something else. Eventually, we went there the following day. We thought she would have calmed down but she was still adamant that alternative therapy should be given to the child. But the doctors said the situation had affected the baby’s brain and other vital organs, and they did not want to be responsible for an ugly situation. But the mother said instead, they would leave the hospital. We called the police to be on the ground and the procedure to ensure the safety of the baby was carried out.
Some people have also argued that parents have rights over their children and that you abused those rights. How would you react to that?
Don’t forget that a child can’t make a decision on her own and if the parents are making a decision over the child, the state government has the authority to protect the baby and the mother. The Child Rights Act is very clear that when the child faces the threat of harm, the state government has the authority to wade into it. We are not violating the family or the parents’ rights over their children because we have not assumed full responsibility for the care of the child but just to make sure that the child is in good condition. Nobody is interested in taking the child from her.
Some people believe there are alternatives to blood transfusion such as blood boosters and blood expanders, how would you react to that comment?
I am not a doctor, but I believe that the doctors who made the decision that it was necessary for the blood transfusion know better. Don’t forget that we brought this child to the hospital on December 31, 2019 and then the blood transfusion was done. They were managing and trying alternative methods but they realised it would not work as the child was not responding. So, we acted in the best interest of the child just as we have in the Child Rights Law.
It is argued that if anything happens to the baby in your care, the parents will have a basis to sue the OPD and the Lagos State Government, what do you think about that?
The court ultimately is a place where such an argument can be determined and I don’t want to preempt the court. But all we were doing at that time was in the best interest of the child and we are backed by the law. The law says that in such a situation where the court believes there is the likelihood that a child will suffer from a significant harm, an emergency protection of such a child is necessary. So, we are not doing anything on our own. Even before we removed the child, we had to get an order from court. Nobody is interested in taking any child; the welfare and well-being of the child are what we are concerned about. It is irresponsible of any government to overlook such a situation. You can’t bring such a case to the government and it will fold its arms and just look the other way.
Do you think the parents of the baby have a right to sue for infringement on their religious belief?
It is left for the court to decide but there are decided authorities which we are familiar with. Don’t forget that we are lawyers too. The issue concerning the survival of a child is not a local thing, it is an international human rights obligation because the survival of the child is one of the key pillars on the convention of child rights and every other law derives from the convention, including the Child Rights Act and Child Rights Law of Lagos State. I don’t believe that any court of law would ask why we did what we did. In fact, they would have frowned on it if we had not taken action.
In such debates, where do you think the rights of the parents over the child end?
Just as I have said, for every right the life is relevant. Every belief, every right and everything that happens in the child’s law has relevance in the constitution. So, when you are talking of rights, a child often is an individual and that is one of the reasons why we have the Child Rights Law. The court realises the significance of the rights of the child and it believes that there has to be specific obligations towards the rights of the child. The child rights law and act are derived from the convention, so that is the constitution for the child. So, anything that anybody is doing pertaining to the child must conform to the law and anything outside it is unacceptable. Even if you are the parent of a child, you cannot do anything that infringes on the right of that child.
Is the OPD right to intervene in the matter considering the fact that it violates the belief of the baby’s parents?
Yes. The child rights law states that the state government and the appropriate authorities can apply to court for an emergency protection order. Also in the child rights law, every child must be given free legal services. OPD offers free legal services for everybody, particularly children. That is our main focus. Apart from giving free legal services to all other people, these special people are our main focus. So, OPD has done nothing wrong, only that we have not done something that has become this controversial; we give free services to children all the time.
Has your office handled a similar case like this before such as transfusion, particularly with reference to children of parents of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
I don’t believe that we have handled that. We have handled cases of religious beliefs where parents have some reservations about what their children are doing, attending another church, converting to another faith and the likes, sometimes even within the same faith but different denominations. We have waded into such matters. We have not had opposition like this. But I guess it may be due to ignorance because they later calmed down. It is not as if they want to oppose the government; they have realised we are doing the same thing – trying to save the baby, only that they feel that an alternative treatment can be used. They are not taking anything so seriously any longer.
Now that the government has the custody of the child, how long will the government keep the baby?
The woman has been with the baby all along, even when we met her at the hospital. The child wants the attention of her mother. Lagos State is not taking the child away from the mother at all, that is not the intention. It is just to make sure the child survives this period. In fact, the representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses called me to ask when she could go back to the child. Nobody is preventing her from having access to the child but because she was a bit hesitant and reluctant then, we didn’t want any confrontation. We don’t want to keep anybody at risk, which was why we took the step we took. They even said they were coming to take the child. When they come, they would be given the child. She is still breastfeeding the child. It was not as if the child was taken away from her. She is still extracting her breast milk to give to the child. It was just that she became a bit agitated during the period when transfusion would be done because of her religious faith.
Where is the child now?
The child is in the hospital under government’s protection.
Some people believe that the baby should not be given back to the parents because their attitude shows that they are not fit to care for the baby and that they could still endanger her life in the future. Have you considered that?
I don’t think so. In my view, the understanding of the whole situation is that the parents care for the baby. The only thing is that they feel that there should be an alternative method of taking care of the baby. Actually, the doctors considered the alternatives but because the alternatives were not working, that was why they preferred the blood transfusion. It is not that they don’t care but for their religious belief.
Some people also believe that the parents should also be sued for risking the baby’s life?
I don’t think Lagos State is thinking about that. It is just unfortunate that the religious belief will affect the survival of the child and we have taken that aspect away and we have taken care of the child; that is our concern.
What is the next step the OPD wants to take as regards the matter?
It is to make sure that the child continues with drugs and to make sure the parents do the needful and the family court is aware of all these things. I am sure if there is anything, the family court will want us to go further. The family court is involved and the court is also involved, so OPD is not just doing it alone.
Parents should decide treatment option they want for their child –Jama, Jehovah’s Witnhttp://Www.zolexreporters.netesses local spokesperson
Jama Onwubuariri is the Local Spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nigeria. He tells ALEXANDER OKERE why the denomination does not accept blood transfusion, in view of the recent controversy over the transfusion of blood by medical officials on the order of the Lagos State Government on a baby born to a couple, Mr and Mrs Onokpise, against their wish and in alleged violation of their religious belief as members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses
A couple from your denomination, Mr and Mrs Emmanuel Onokpise, recently kicked against the decision of the Lagos State Government to order blood transfusion on their baby who was said to be jaundiced. What is the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nigeria on the matter?
The baby was born prematurely to Mr and Mrs Emmanuel Onokpise at Avon Medical Services on December 18, 2019. Her weight at birth was 2.2kg. The doctors informed the parents that the baby was doing well in the incubator but informed them, three days later, that she was jaundiced, and that the treatment would involve blood transfusion. The father inquired if there were alternative methods that could be applied, and the doctor replied that blood transfusion was the one he knew. The father explained to the doctor that they would not accept blood transfusion for their baby because they were aware of many dangers associated with transfusion. In addition, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they adhere to the Bible’s injunction to abstain from blood.
Where did the parents take the baby to when they left Avon Medical Services?
At that stage, the doctor (at Avon Medical Services) asked the father if he knew any doctor or hospital that could treat the baby without administering blood. The father called a doctor with whom he was acquainted, who then requested that the parents may consult Outreach Children Specialist Hospital for bloodless treatment of the baby. The doctor at Avon then acknowledged that Outreach Hospital had better equipment and wrote a letter of referral for the baby to OCSH.
With the referral letter from Avon, the parents paid for an ambulance from Avon to convey the baby to Outreach hospital. At Outreach, the father made a deposit for the treatment, and the doctors commenced treatment of the baby without blood. The doctors provided an update on the baby’s progress the next day and gave the bill for the treatment of the baby during the last 24 hours, which came to N165,000. The parents informed the hospital that they were unable to bear the bill, if 24 hours of treatment was as costly as N165,000. They then requested to be discharged so they could pursue other cost-effective options to treat the jaundice. The baby was therefore discharged on December 25, 2019.
What form of treatment was offered to the sick baby after that?
At home, the parents used local remedies. They were surprised to see some social workers armed with a court order and the police asking to take the baby to Massey Street Hospital on December 30. After the police and social workers refused to listen to the pleas by visitors who had come to see the baby and her mother, the father asked his wife to go with the baby to the hospital, accompanied by the police and social workers. Massey Street Hospital doctors placed the baby in the neonatal Intensive Care Unit between Monday, December 30, 2020, and Monday, January 6, 2020. During this time, the medical personnel were treating the baby with phototherapy and erythropoietin purchased by the father.
At the same time, they were providing the father with samples to conduct laboratory tests to determine the status of the jaundice. Between the admittance of the baby at Massey Street Hospital, the jaundice level dropped from 19 to seven while being treated without blood transfusion. At this stage, the doctors discontinued the phototherapy, and the parents were waiting to be discharged. But on the evening of Monday, January 6, the doctors informed the parents that they noticed that the baby’s heartbeat was fast, and that her blood count was low. The social workers returned to Massey Street Hospital on the morning of Monday, January 7, 2020, and insisted that they were going to transfuse the baby. They threw the parents out of the hospital and the baby was forcefully transfused at about 11am on Tuesday, January 7, 2020.
What does your denomination say about blood transfusion?
Jehovah’s Witnesses hold the Bible as the word of God and believe what it says. Genesis 9:4 says, “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Later, the apostolic council in the first century made the following rule for Christians in Acts 15:29, saying “Keep abstaining … from blood.” Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the biblical injunction against eating blood to include intravenous transfusion. They believe that God has the prerogative to determine how blood should be used and believe that like every other commandment of God, this is to our ultimate benefit.
What is the implication when a member of your congregation undergoes blood transfusion?
Adherence to the Bible’s commands is voluntary. It is the personal decision of each individual to follow his Bible-trained conscience.
What alternatives are there for your members who require blood transfusion?
Medical science has developed several alternatives to blood transfusion, and these are available to everyone, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, many informed individuals prefer these alternatives to blood transfusion. The church’s website contains several resources that members of the public can refer to for information on bloodless alternatives. You may also compare other reputable medical sites.
What are the other major doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses than people need to understand and respect?
This fact is that some people do not even know us beyond the subject of blood. But when they give us a chance to explain our practicable Bible-based beliefs, many are surprised that they had been misinformed. Of course, any information someone may want to know about us is available on our website.
Are there no exceptions to the doctrines when it involves life and death?
As our Creator, we believe that God’s instructions are for our benefit (see Isaiah 48:17, 18). In the case of blood, medical journals are replete with positive comments about bloodless treatment over one that involves the use of blood. Having said that, it is up to each individual to decide to obey God or act otherwise.
Would it not have been wrong for the baby Onokpise to die because its parents’ religious belief forbids such a medical treatment?
We care deeply about the life of our loved ones and would be deeply grieved to see anyone we love die. At the same time, when it comes to treatment, no physician can realistically guarantee that a certain approach would definitely save life. We have seen medical news reports of children who died after blood transfusion and ones who survived without it in treating similar conditions.
So, to approach a medical issue with such a narrow view may not be balanced. By and large, though, parents are responsible to decide what medical treatment they will accept or refuse for their child, each choice of treatment usually has its own pros and cons that loving parents have to weigh carefully.
The state government, through the Office of the Public Defender, reportedly said it would not fold its arms and allow any parent to act ignorantly on religious grounds in a way that would put lives at risk. How will you respond to that?
We appreciate the role of the government in public safety and the need for a swift response in issues that are life-threatening. We are law-abiding citizens. Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage parents to seek the best available medical treatment for their children. Our publications also provide updates on medical and scientific advancements that help parents make informed medical choices. However, in this case, the parents have demonstrated their love for their child by arranging and paying for medical treatment for their child in various hospitals. We are sure that having the true facts of the matter would have led to a different outcome.
Is the recent case the first time JW had had health related issues with the government or public health institutions?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of the larger society, and face the same health challenges as everyone. Overall, doctors and hospitals have been cooperative while treating Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Does the church intend to take a legal action against the hospital and the state government for alleged rights violation since it was against your religious belief?
Our priority and focus are to respect the safety and well-being of the child.