When Ideologies Collide: Medical Ethics and Religious Beliefs

From Knocking collection, lesson plan 2 of 4

(90-120 minutes + assignments)

Grade Level: 9-12, College

Subject areas: Social Studies, Language Arts, Debate, Sociology, Ethics, Psychology, Religious Studies, Current Events

Purpose of the lesson: For most people, religious beliefs are not usually a matter of life and death or a path to medical invention. However, for Jehovah’s Witnesses, following the tenets of their religion sometimes does become a life-and-death situation that places patients at odds with their doctors or, in some cases, results in the development of new medical techniques that help physicians successfully treat patients. This lesson explores the issue of religion and medical ethics and how access to and the creation of new medical treatments and technology can result when religious beliefs and medical practices contradict one another.


Students will:

  • learn about how religious beliefs and medical ethics sometimes clash, posing problems for patients in need of certain medical treatments
  • utilize critical reading and viewing skills
  • utilize brainstorming skills
  • participate in class discussions and debates
  • utilize persuasive speaking skills and demonstrate the ability to form and support opinions
  • conduct research and use it to formulate a piece of persuasive writing


Stating and supporting opinions in class discussion, critical reading and viewing, research, persuasive writing techniques


  • Board/overhead
  • student and teacher handouts (provided with guide)
  • Knocking Film Module 2 “The Role of Religion in Advancing Medical Treatment”
  • access to Internet and library resources
  • assorted art supplies and/or desktop publishing software

National teaching standards addressed:

Grades 9-12

National standards from the following organizations were used in developing this lesson plan. See recommended national standards available in the educator guide for full descriptions of standards employed.

  • National Council for the Social Studies
  • National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association

Curricula writer: Lisa Prososki

Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school English, social studies, reading and technology courses for 12 years. Prososki has worked extensively with PBS, authoring and editing many lesson plans for various PBS programs and TeacherSource.

  1. Read each statement below and direct students to stand near the sign that most closely represents their point of view about the statement. Select volunteers to give reasons for their opinions.

    • A patient’s right to refuse treatment should take precedence over a doctor’s pledge to preserve life in whatever way possible.
    • If I were faced with a life-and-death situation that required me to violate my religious beliefs, I would choose life rather than adhering to the established religious standards.
    • Parents should have the right to refuse medical treatment for their children, even when their decision puts the life of the child at risk.
    • Advances in life-saving or life-giving medical technologies should not be hindered or adversely affected by religious groups that are opposed to the research and/or procedures being developed.
    • Medical professionals should be required to provide necessary procedures, treatments, and medications, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.
  2. After all statements have been discussed, have students take their seats and explain to them that the statements they discussed are issues that Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religions, along with the medical community, have been grappling with for many years. To give students more insight about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their beliefs, distribute or share copies of the film summary and the subject page “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood”. Take time to read over this information as a class so that students get a very basic understanding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their stand on blood issues. Additional information can also be found in the lecture series “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Medicine” available on the Knocking DVD.

  3. Introduce the Knocking Film Module 2 by explaining to students that they will be seeing the story of Seth Thomas and learning about the obstacles and decisions he, his family, and the medical community faced because of Seth’s medical crisis. All these parties had to address many of the issues discussed in the opening activity in the lesson.

  4. View Knocking Film Module 2.

  5. Facilitate a class discussion/debate about topics from the film clip and article. This could include questions such as:

    • If you had been in a position similar to Seth’s, what decisions would you have made about your treatment? Why?
    • In Seth’s story, he cannot be placed on the organ donor list because his surgery is considered experimental. Do you believe this is fair? Why or why not?
    • In the film, Joel P. Engardio reports, “USC will perform Seth’s surgery to meet the religious needs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In turn, the hospital gets to test out new technology on them. The aim is to limit blood loss to the point where most transfusions are unnecessary. USC thinks bloodless surgery should be the new standard for everyone. The threat of HIV and other viruses in the blood supply has given doctors an incentive to work with Witness patients.” From this quote we learned that Seth’s family finally found a hospital and physicians willing to treat them with a risky, experimental therapy that meets the standards of their religion. Do you think it is ethical for the hospital to do this? Explain your answer.
    • Filmmaker Joel P. Engardio makes the following statement in the film: “Witnesses and doctors have been at odds ever since blood transfusions became common in the 1950s. Witnesses asked for alternative treatments. The medical establishment refused, often forcing blood on Jehovah’s Witnesses against their will. Witnesses felt they had a right to determine their own medical care. Doctors felt a religion had no right to let its members die.” Based on this statement, your opinions and what you have seen and learned from the film, how should medical professionals balance their commitment to save lives with their obligation to respect a patient’s autonomy and belief system?
    • Do you think doctors should have the right to administer blood products to minor children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and whose families are against the use of these products? Why?
    • In what ways have Jehovah’s Witnesses changed the type of medical care available to all people because of their refusal of blood products? Give specific examples.

NOTE: The Knocking film quotes are referenced in this step and could be distributed to students for use during discussion.

  1. Close this part of the activity by asking students to think about the opinions they shared in Step 1 and to discuss briefly how their opinions have changed, if at all, based upon what they learned from the film and related activities.

  2. Broaden the discussion of medical ethics and religious beliefs by presenting students with case studies and more questions for discussion. To find additional information about related topics, see Teacher Handout A: Supplemental Materials for Activity Two. Topics could include:

    • Some medical professionals and faith-based health organizations determine which medical treatments they will provide based on their religious beliefs. For example, a pharmacist may refuse to fill prescriptions for specific medications, or a religiously owned hospital will not offer abortion, contraception, or sterilization procedures. Some states allow this legally; others require compliance to treatment standards determined by medical organizations. Most states do not have laws regulating refusal to treat. What is your opinion about this? Should medical professionals of all types be allowed to choose which treatments they provide based on their religious beliefs? Should treatment options vary for patients depending on the facility or staff they have? Why?
    • There are cases where parents or family members refuse a recommended medical treatment for minor children or incapacitated family members because it is against their religion. Often these situations pose difficult choices about whether life-sustaining treatments are either provided or withdrawn. Do you think people should have the right to deny medical treatment for others based on their religious beliefs, even if failure to get treatment may result in loss of life for the person who needs it?
    • The use of stem cells to treat disease is a topic of hot debate. Religious groups are often at the center of this debate. Some faith groups advocate in legislatures and courts to prevent this type of research. What do you think about stem cell research? What should the relationship be between religious doctrines and public funding of medical research and advancement?

    Close the discussion by reflecting on the Seth Thomas story where new life-saving medical treatment was achieved while honoring the families’ religious beliefs, and consider whether this kind of resolution can be achieved in some of the conflicts discussed above.

  3. Encourage students to learn more about issues related to religion and medical ethics issues by choosing one of the following activities:

    • Research a recent court case based upon a medical/religious dispute. Learn about what the medical professionals want vs. what the patient(s) and/or their family(ies) want, and what the court determined. Learn the facts of the case and then create a persuasive essay or letter to the editor stating your opinion about the case.


    • Conduct research about bloodless surgery, blood substitutes, or new techniques that have evolved in medicine as a result of varying religious beliefs and the medical community’s commitment to treating these patients in the best way possible. Learn specific information about one of these topics and create an informational brochure or multimedia presentation (such as PowerPoint) that describes what you learned and could be used to teach others about this medical option.


    • Based on the classroom activities, select a medical ethics issue involving religious beliefs. Conduct research or interview medical and religious experts to learn more about how each group feels about the issue you are profiling. Summarize what you learned about the opinions of both groups involved in the conflict by writing a feature article that presents both sides of the issue and gets readers interested in this ethical dilemma.
  4. When students have completed their projects, provide an opportunity for them to post and share their work with others.

There is no extension activity with this lesson plan.

  • Film module:
    Knocking: Transfusion

Download lesson materials