If it bleeds, it leads

An excellent Kansas City Star news story puts a new twist on the old saying that "if it bleeds, it leads."

The Star tackles the case of a Kansas woman refusing a liver transplant in her home state because it would violate her religious beliefs:

As much as Mary Stinemetz wants to live, she’s ready to die for her faith.

Suffering from the late stages of liver disease, Stinemetz, 64, needs a transplant. But the operation could cost more than $250,000, an insurmountable expense for her family.

Whether she gets a transplant could depend on how far she’s willing to battle for her beliefs in a courtroom drama that will unfold in the Kansas Court of Appeals today.

Living in the small western Kansas town of Hill City, Stinemetz could get a liver transplant, one that would be paid for by Medicaid, at the University of Kansas Hospital.

But she also would have to compromise her Jehovah’s Witness principles, because she would receive a blood transfusion, something she believes violates God’s law.

Here's what I like about Brad Cooper's report: It impresses me as good old-fashioned journalism. It presents the facts clearly and does not take sides. The big question is whether Kansas should pay for Stinemetz to have an out-of-state, bloodless transplant surgery in Nebraska.

In roughly 1,100 words, this story covers the basic medical, legal and, yes, religious angles -- and does so with simple declarative sentences and compelling quotes that make sense even to readers who are not doctors, lawyers or theologians.

Take this description of Stinemetz's illness, for example:

Stinemetz suffers primary biliary cirrhosis, a chronic disease that inflames the bile ducts in the liver and eventually causes them to disappear. When the bile ducts become damaged, bile accumulates in the liver, injuring the organ and causing it to deteriorate and malfunction.

The disease develops over time — Stinemetz has suffered it for 20 years — and its primary cause is unknown, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. A transplant is the only cure.

“I don’t feel that great. I am very, very weak,” said Stinemetz, who will not make the trip to Topeka for today’s hearing.

As the disease has progressed, Stinemetz has rapidly lost weight, she’s short of breath, her immune system is weakened, her abdomen is enlarged, and she has had a lung drained of fluid at least 13 times in the last 18 months. She has chills because she’s anemic.

She moves slowly and spends a lot of time at home for fear of catching a cold.

Now, how would I grade the story's handling of the obvious religious questions? I'd have to give the Star a B-minus. Here's the relevant section that attempts to explain why Stinemetz opposes a transfusion:

Stinemetz said Jehovah’s Witnesses follow biblical directives to abstain from blood, pointing to passages in the books of Acts, Genesis and Deuteronomy, according to court records.

Church doctrine leaves it to the discretion of members to accept certain blood fractions and donor organs.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York has filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Stinemetz’s behalf.

The group said that Kansas was forcing Stinemetz to choose “between forgoing all surgery or submitting to medical treatment that violates he religious beliefs.”

That's not bad, but it's a bit too vague for my liking. In a Daily Oklahoman column several years ago, here is the explanation I gave:

(Jehovah's Witnesses) base their position on a literal biblical interpretation that makes “drinking” another person’s blood – as symbolized by a transfusion – a sin.

They point to Scriptures such as Genesis 9:4-5, Leviticus 7:26-27, Acts 15:20 and Acts 21:25.

According to Leviticus 7:27 (New International Version), “If anyone eats blood, that person must be cut off from his people.”

Later in the Star story, there's another paragraph just begging for additional exploration:

But in court papers, state lawyers noted that Stinemetz acknowledged that she wouldn’t be ostracized from her church if she did receive a blood transfusion and was “truly repentant.”

It sounds like the state is arguing that the woman should violate her conscience and religious beliefs, undergo a blood transfusion and then "truly repent" of her sin. Really?

Despite my specific criticisms, though, I really liked this story. Throughout the piece, the writer lets Stinemetz express her feelings and beliefs in her own words -- even when they contain the kind of religious language that sometimes frightens reporters.

The final paragraphs:

Meanwhile, Stinemetz and her husband, Merlyn, are vowing to fight on as long as their lawyers are willing. Yet Mary Stinemetz isn’t sure how much longer she will live without a new liver, although it’s probably not more than a couple years.

And she’s not even on a waiting list for the organ.

“I’m just surprised I’m still here, to be honest with you,” Stinemetz said. “As long as I’m in Jehovah’s memory, I know I will be resurrected. I’m not afraid of dying by any means.”

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