ABC’s hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” finds its best religious tone yet in last night’s “Bad Blood” episode. A patient dies on the table because his Jehovah’s Witness faith prohibits blood transfusions, one intern struggles with the ethics of the situation, and the family is cast as distraught-but-not-crazy in their faithfulness to their beliefs. Even with the brief time allotted to this storyline amidst a routinely busy episode, Grey’s manages to keep a tricky subject complex and open.
In the show’s ninth season, as the hospital begins to close its ER doors in preparation to be sold, a boy is brought into the hospital with severe injuries. The unconscious boy needs surgery, but Dr. Yang (Sandra Oh) is forced to proceed with a “bloodless surgery,” forgoing the use of critically important blood transfusion, because the boy has a Jehovah’s Witness alert tag.
Like the episode correctly portrays, JW faith prohibits blood transfusions. Grey’s doesn’t take the time to explain that it’s atypical interpretation of Bible passages like Acts 15 and Leviticus 17 that leads to the sect’s belief, but it rightly shows the JW family as devoutly holding to their belief. It is a defining doctrine of the church, and those who disobey can find themselves excommunicated.
The family, though, was not portrayed as particularly irrational or crazy, which is a refreshing turn in the often oversimplified “conflict” between science and faith. While no major character expresses agreement or empathy with the religious creed, respect is shown for the belief system. In fact, viewers were able to at least sympathize with the family, as the actors playing the boy’s parents do a good job of showing the emotional toll of holding to one’s life-threatening faith.
It’s not the show’s job to promote JW beliefs, but it goes a long way toward open dialogue on spirituality when the religious peculiarity is not shown as being held by a bunch of nutcases. One intern struggles with her medical role, not understanding how to respect a patient’s beliefs when blood transfusions are so routine and so important. She even tries to sneak in a blood bag, which Yang had already warned could result in assault and battery charges.
Yet again, the show gets it right, pointing not only to the ethical dilemma facing doctors, but also the legal limits that religious faith poses. Assault charges have been filed by JW patients who received blood transfusions. In a 1996 case, the Supreme Court of Connecticut set a precedent in Stamford Hospital vs. Vega that a patient’s rights to medical self-determination demands respect for religious beliefs like JWs’. Again, the episode does not go into these details, but it packs in a wealth quick references to the issue’s many facets while focusing on the broader drama that would keep viewers hooked.
Grey’s Anatomy has a history of provocative religious references, some approached with glossy simplifications, some problematically wrapped up in neat little bows by the end of the episode, but this compelling storyline was well executed. It even managed to slip in questions about the sincerity of one’s devotion to a family faith and the degree to which people share their religious beliefs with friends.
The episode was complicated, but not over the audience’s head; full of perspectives, but still open for viewer interpretation. With viewers having their own variety of religious convictions, that seems like a solid approach.
Were you sold on Bad Blood? Did you think it was more one-sided than it should have been? Or maybe it should have been more one-sided? Leave your thoughts in the Comments.