Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Pure Church and the Problem of Confidentiality

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Pure Church and the Problem of Confidentiality

Article excerpt

The Pure Church and the Problem of Confidentiality

The Jehovah's Witnesses have always been a morally interesting religious congregation for medical ethicists because of their practice of refusing life-saving blood transfusions based on the community's interpretation of Biblical injunctions against "eating blood." An article in a recent Watchtower (September 1, 1987, 12-15) indicates another religious requirement of practicing Witnesses may produce moral and legal conflict in the medical setting: Jehovah's Witnesses employed as health care workers may be obligated to violate institutional, professional, or legal requirements protecting patient confidentiality of fellow Witnesses. The "superior demands of divine law" can necessitate occasions when a Witness would "strain or even breach the requirements of confidentiality" for two related purposes: (1) To aid an "apparent" sinner, and (2) to preserve the purity and cleanliness of the congregation.

The article presents a situation that Jehovah's Witnesses face "from time to time," in which a hypothetical Witness (Mary) working as a medical records assistant discovers that "a patient, a fellow Christian, had submitted to an abortion." The dilemma posed for the assistant is whether Scripture imposes upon her a responsibility to "expose this information to elders in the congregation, even though it might lead to her losing her job, to her being sued, or to her employer's having legal problems." In making the decision, the Witness should consider (1) the situational facts and evidence of wrongdoing, (2) relevant Biblical principles, (3) legal implications, and (4) preservation of a "clear conscience."

Biblical principles that might require a violation of medical confidentiality include responsibility for disclosure of personal "serious wrongdoing," and the oaths and promises made by confessing congregants to "keep the congregation clean, both by what they do personally and by the way they help others to remain clean." Depending on the strength of the evidence of wrongdoing in the situation, such Biblical principles can override the requirements of privacy and confidentiality of medical records. …

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