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Georgetown College v. Jones: 1963

Crisis Develops At Georgetown Hospital

In September 1963, a young man named Jessie E. Jones brought his wife into the hospital operated by Georgetown College in Washington, D.C. Georgetown College is now Georgetown University, whose hospital is a world-famous institution. Mrs. Jones, age 25 and mother of a 7-month-old child, had suffered a ruptured ulcer and lost two-thirds of her blood. The Joneses were both Jehovah's Witnesses. When Dr. Edwin Westura, the chief medical resident, said that Mrs. Jones (first name unavailable) would die unless given a blood transfusion, Jones refused to permit it.

Responsible for Mrs. Jones' life, Georgetown had its lawyers, Peter R. Taft, Harold Ungar and the famous Edward Bennett Williams, go to the courts for permission to give the necessary blood transfusions without Jones' consent. On September 17, 1963, the attorneys went to Judge Edward A. Tamm's chambers at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and asked for an emergency order allowing the hospital to save Mrs. Jones' life. Judge Tamm refused. At 4:00 P.M. on the same day, the attorneys went to the chambers of Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, asking for an immediate review of Tamm's decision.

Judge Wright telephoned the hospital, and Dr. Westura confirmed that Mrs. Jones would die without a blood transfusion. Wright then went to the hospital with the attorneys, where he met Jones. Jones remained firm in his refusal to grant consent. Father Bunn, Georgetown's president, even came to plead with Jones, to no avail. Westura and the other doctors assigned to the case tried without success to explain that a transfusion is completely different from drinking blood. At 5:20 P.M., Wright signed the orders prepared by the attorneys, and Mrs. Jones was given blood transfusions that saved her life.

On September 19, 1963, Wright filed a memorandum concerning his actions, which recited various legal precedents permitting courts to act in preservation of human life, and ended by stating:

The final, and compelling, reason for granting the emergency writ was that a life hung in the balance. There was no time for research and reflection. Death could have mooted the cause in a matter of minutes, if action were not taken to preserve the status quo. To refuse to act, only to find later that the law required action, was a risk I was unwilling to accept. I determined to act on the side of life.

On October 14, 1963, Jones' attorneys, Ralph H. Deckelbaum and Bernard Margolius, filed a petition for rehearing before the full court of appeals to quash Wright's September 17 order. On February 3, 1964, the Court of Appeals denied Jones's petition because Mrs. Jones had long since recovered and left the hospital. There was a spirited dissent, however, by Circuit Judge Warren Burger, who subsequently became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Burger felt that the fact that Jones had signed a release upon bringing his wife to the hospital took the case out of the court's jurisdiction: in effect, the college had to rely on the release for legal protection without court help. Jones appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his attorneys' petition was denied without comment on June 15, 1964.

Even though the 1960s was an era of increasing civil liberties, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren refused to overturn the court of appeals' de facto approval of Judge Wright's actions to save Mrs. Jones' life. Although the Supreme Court and the judicial system were increasingly sensitive to the rights of religious minorities, they drew the line when religious sensibilities meant that modern medical technology would be denied to a person in need.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Evan, Thomas. The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Kelly, David F. Critical Care Ethics: Treatment Decisions in American Hospitals. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1991.

Marty, Martin E. and Kenneth L. Vaux. Health/Medicine and the Faith Traditions: an Inquiry Into Religion and Medicine. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

Penton, M. James. Apocalypse Delayed: the Story of Jehovah's Witnesses. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "Blinded by the Light." Discover (August 1988): 28-30.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Georgetown College v. Jones: 1963 - Crisis Develops At Georgetown Hospital, Suggestions For Further Reading