Questions From Readers
◼ Would it be wrong for a Christian, under medical treatment, to allow leeches to be applied to him to draw off some blood?
It would not be contrary to God’s Word to permit the medical withdrawal and disposal of some blood. But to do this through the use of leeches would conflict with what the Bible says. Admittedly, leeches are not commonly used today. Yet questions about using them do arise, particularly in Europe. Noting what the Bible says about blood can help us to evaluate such treatments.
For centuries it was thought that many ills could be relieved by bloodletting, or bleeding. Medieval barber-surgeons practiced this art, a carry-over being the red-and-white–striped pole that in some places identifies a barbershop. But medical doctors practiced bloodletting too. In 1799 repeated bleedings likely hastened the death of George Washington, the first president of the United States of America. Even when it did not kill a person, the practice of bloodletting brought many patients to an anemic state.
In Europe it was common to accomplish a form of bloodletting by applying a quantity of leeches to the skin, allowing them to fill up on the patient’s blood. Reporting from Mainz, Germany, Dr. L. K. Altman wrote: “In 1850, when patients might apply as many as 80 leeches at the same time for a wide variety of ailments, about 100 million leeches were sold in France. As late as 1953, Russian doctors used leeches on Stalin before he died.”—New York Times, February 17, 1981.
Dr. Altman pointed out that even in modern medicine some doctors in Europe and in the United States use leeches in specialized situations. For example, they have been employed to remove blood clots in certain cases of plastic surgery or to draw off accumulated blood from fingers restored by microsurgery.
Where do Christians stand as to the removing of blood, and would it be fitting to allow this to be done with leeches?
After the flood of Noah’s day, God set out a change from the vegetarian diet that he had outlined for animals and humans in the garden of Eden. Jehovah said: “Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. As in the case of green vegetation, I do give it all to you. Only flesh with its soul—its blood—you must not eat.” (Genesis 9:3, 4; 1:30) God explained the matter further in the Mosaic law. He said that blood represents life, a gift from God, and it is sacred. What, then, was to be done with the blood of an animal that was killed for sacrifice? The blood was not to be used for fertilizer, animal food or some such thing. It was to be poured out and covered with dust; in a sense it was given back to Him.—Leviticus 17:10-14.
Christians should strive to manifest that they appreciate the sacredness of blood. (Acts 15:28, 29) Accordingly, if blood is removed from the body, it should be disposed of, comparable to the Israelites’ pouring blood out on the ground.
At times doctors may have medical grounds for advising that blood be removed (phlebotomy). For example, with the blood disease polycythemia vera a person has excessive red blood cells (the opposite of anemia). The blood, thick with red cells, may produce clots, increasing the threat of strokes or heart attacks. There are various ways of managing this, but sometimes the choice treatment is venesection, drawing off some blood from a vein. The counsel of God’s Word would not rule this out so long as the removed blood was disposed of. Similarly, many Christians have felt conscientiously able to permit small quantities of blood to be taken for medical tests, realizing that once the tests were completed the blood would be discarded.
However, though leeches parasitically feed on blood in their natural state at present, it would not be proper for a Christian to permit leeches to draw his blood. (Proverbs 30:15) Even where this was urged for medical reasons and the leeches would later be disposed of, the use of leeches would involve deliberately feeding blood to these creatures. That would conflict with the Bible’s indication that blood, being sacred and representing life, should be disposed of if it is removed from a body.