Tuesday, 29 September 2015


According to editor of the News Shopper, Andrew Parkes, "everyone has a right to believe whatever they choose and furthermore, has a right to preach whatever they like."

He was responding to a phone call he received from a reader who was unhappy at being preached at in the street by a Jehovah's Witnesses. The unnamed reader was unhappy that Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in blood transfusions. He was also unhappy with Andrew Parkes' response.

My sympathy is with the reader however. While the freedom of speech is one civil right we all rightly treasure, it comes with responsibilities as well. You shouldn't be able preach views that might incite others to cause people harm or to allow harm to come to them. This is why it's illegal to preach racial hatred, homophobia, or sex discrimination and why it's illegal to incite people to commit acts of terrorism.

There is a loophole in the law however where this principle doesn't seem to apply and that is with the preaching of religious practises which most certainly cause harm. Bizarre religious cults, of which the Jehovah's Witnesses are just one, are responsible for persuading vulnerable and impressionable people to forgo proper medical treatment for themselves and their children, based on misleading interpretations of religious texts from the Bible and elsewhere.

I don't have any problem with a responsible adult deciding that their holy book says they can't eat radishes on a Wednesday or allow their left foot to touch the ground during Lent. They can even allow themselves to die through self neglect and refusal to accept treatment for an easily treatable medical condition if it think it says so in the Book of Deuteronomy.

Where I draw the line is when they impose these conditions on their children, often with tragic consequences.

Fortunately, in the UK the law is able to step in and take responsibility for children who are being neglected in this way and it's rare now for any child to die for want of a blood transfusion or any other medical procedure being denied them by their religious nut parents. Sadly, this isn't always the case and in other countries it is still common to find children dying as a result of parents being duped by religious cults into believing that their child will be cured by God, their favourite saint or by using a fake remedy sold by some quack preacher

It is increasingly the case that parents who allow their children to suffer and die because of their religious beliefs are now being prosecuted for manslaughter, especially in countries like the US and Australia. These cases in the US State of Oregon show what can happen when we extend the right to free speech without restraint.

Unfortunately, state intervention doesn't happen here anything like enough as in this case where a baby died after his parents refused to have him treated with conventional medicine. The coroner returned a verdict of death from natural causes. In this case, the parents were practitioners of the pre-scientific nonsense known as homeopathy but the principle is the same

So, should Jehovah's Witnesses be able to preach freely? Only if you think that telling someone "your child will go to Hell if you let them have a life saving blood transfusion" is exercising your right to free speech.

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