Georgetown College v. Jones: 1963

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Georgetown College v. Jones: 1963

Plaintiff: Georgetown College, now known as Georgetown University
Defendant: Jessie E. Jones
Plaintiff Claim: That the courts should overrule Jones' refusal to permit a blood transfusion for his wife, who was being treated in the school's hospital
Chief Defense Lawyers: Ralph H. Deckelbaum and Bernard Margolius
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Peter R. Taft, Harold Ungar, and Edward Bennett Williams
Judge: J. Skelly Wright
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Hearing: September 17, 1963
Decision: That the hospital should be allowed to give all necessary blood transfusions

SIGNIFICANCE: Despite the expansion of civil liberties by the courts in the 1960s, the judicial system refused to recognize any right to refuse medical treatment for purely religious reasons.

One of the many Christian religious sects is a group called the Jehovah's Witnesses, which is several centuries old. Followers of the sect believe in the imminent end of the world, and in strictly following the literal words and commands of the Bible. One of these biblical commands is contained in Genesis chapter nine, which states that the consumption of blood is forbidden:

And God went on to bless Noah and his sons and to say to them: "Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth. And a fear of you and a terror of you will continue upon every living creature of the earth and upon every flying creature of the heavens, upon everything that goes moving on the ground, and upon all the fishes of the sea. Into your hand they are now given. Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. As in the case of the green vegetation, I do give it all to you. Only flesh with its soulits bloodyou must not eat."

In keeping with their literalist approach, the Jehovah's Witnesses traditionally would not eat blood sausages or blood puddings. They never had any serious conflicts with the medical profession until the 1940s, when blood transfusions and the technology of blood storage in blood banks became standardized and commonplace. In 1945, a Jehovah's Witness publication called The Watchtower stated that blood transfusions were akin to consuming blood.

Crisis Develops at Georgetown Hospital

In September 1963, a young man named Jessie E. Jones brought his wife into the hospital operated by Georgetown College in Washington, D.C. Georgetown College is now Georgetown University, whose hospital is a world-famous institution. Mrs. Jones, age 25 and mother of a 7-month-old child, had suffered a ruptured ulcer and lost two-thirds of her blood. The Joneses were both Jehovah's Witnesses. When Dr. Edwin Westura, the chief medical resident, said that Mrs. Jones (first name unavailable) would die unless given a blood transfusion, Jones refused to permit it.

Responsible for Mrs. Jones' life, Georgetown had its lawyers, Peter R. Taft, Harold Ungar and the famous Edward Bennett Williams, go to the courts for permission to give the necessary blood transfusions without Jones' consent. On September 17, 1963, the attorneys went to Judge Edward A. Tamm's chambers at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and asked for an emergency order allowing the hospital to save Mrs. Jones' life. Judge Tamm refused. At 4:00 p.m. on the same day, the attorneys went to the chambers of Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, asking for an immediate review of Tamm's decision.

Judge Wright telephoned the hospital, and Dr. Westura confirmed that Mrs. Jones would die without a blood transfusion. Wright then went to the hospital with the attorneys, where he met Jones. Jones remained firm in his refusal to grant consent. Father Bunn, Georgetown's president, even came to plead with Jones, to no avail. Westura and the other doctors assigned to the case tried without success to explain that a transfusion is completely different from drinking blood. At 5:20 p.m., Wright signed the orders prepared by the attorneys, and Mrs. Jones was given blood transfusions that saved her life.

On September 19, 1963, Wright filed a memorandum concerning his actions, which recited various legal precedents permitting courts to act in preservation of human life, and ended by stating:

The final, and compelling, reason for granting the emergency writ was that a life hung in the balance. There was no time for research and reflection. Death could have mooted the cause in a matter of minutes, if action were not taken to preserve the status quo. To refuse to act, only to find later that the law required action, was a risk I was unwilling to accept. I determined to act on the side of life.

On October 14, 1963, Jones' attorneys, Ralph H. Deckelbaum and Bernard Margolius, filed a petition for rehearing before the full court of appeals to quash Wright's September 17 order. On February 3, 1964, the Court of Appeals denied Jones's petition because Mrs. Jones had long since recovered and left the hospital. There was a spirited dissent, however, by Circuit Judge Warren Burger, who subsequently became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Burger felt that the fact that Jones had signed a release upon bringing his wife to the hospital took the case out of the court's jurisdiction: in effect, the college had to rely on the release for legal protection without court help. Jones appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his attorneys' petition was denied without comment on June 15, 1964.

Even though the 1960s was an era of increasing civil liberties, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren refused to overturn the court of appeals' de facto approval of Judge Wright's actions to save Mrs. Jones' life. Although the Supreme Court and the judicial system were increasingly sensitive to the rights of religious minorities, they drew the line when religious sensibilities meant that modern medical technology would be denied to a person in need.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Evan, Thomas. The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Kelly, David F. Critical Care Ethics: Treatment Decisions in American Hospitals. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1991.

Marty, Martin E. and Kenneth L. Vaux. Health/Medicine and the Faith Traditions: an Inquiry Into Religion and Medicine. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

Penton, M. James. Apocalypse Delayed: the Story of Jehovah's Witnesses. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "Blinded by the Light." Discover (August 1988): 28-30.

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Georgetown College v. Jones: 1963

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Georgetown College v. Jones: 1963