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Parents ripped apart by religious interpretation

John Gradon

Calgary Herald

Saturday, February 26, 2005

They sit in court, and separated by an aisle that might as well be as wide as a mile, exhibit stark evidence of a house forever divided.

It is not unusual for families ripped apart by circumstances or events or a combination of both to end up in either a criminal or civil courtroom setting.

When it does happen, there can be much at play, but the deep-seated problems involved would most often and most likely be rooted in such causes as abuse, for instance, or alcohol, drugs, neglect, assault, or even homicide.

But seldom does it occur in the name of God . . . or rather, as on this occasion, the consequence of diametrically opposing interpretations of His word and His teachings.

Oh yes, sadly, there is a death involved here.

It is that of 17-year-old Bethany Hughes who died of leukemia in highly controversial circumstances Sept. 5, 2002.

The teenager passed away less than six months after she underwent a series of blood transfusions, allegedly against her wishes, when Alberta Children's Services assumed custody of her after she refused conventional treatment for the disease.

Various court hearings have heard that Bethany, a devout believer in the Jehovah's Witness faith and in the Watch Tower Society, fought the transfusion process to such an extent that she had been known to rip medical tubes from her arms in Calgary's Alberta's Children's Hospital.

When she contracted the cancer, her father Lawrence Hughes left the Witnesses and proceeded to battle to allow her to receive the transfusion he was convinced that, if applied early enough, might save his daughter's life.

On the other hand Bethany's mother, Arliss Hughes, backed by her religion and senior proponents of it, wanted the procedures terminated in accordance with their faith's belief that blood transfusions are inherently wrong and unacceptable.

In the wake of Bethany's death, the courtroom has become a family battleground with Lawrence Hughes-- he has been granted the role of overseer of his daughter's estate -- attempting to launch a $1-million wrongful death lawsuit against the church, Arliss Hughes, and doctors for allowing or persuading his daughter to refuse the transfusions. [Lawrence Hughes, in his personal capacity as well as Administrator of the Estate, is represented by Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall].

In Court of Queen's Bench Friday, Justice Ged Hawco ruled that Lawrence Hughes' status as estate overseer should stand and that therefore he should be allowed to proceed with his case -- although the judge did emphasize the fact that "Whether the claim is legitimate or not is a decision to be made by this court on another day."

And so, for now, the impending lawsuit will stand.

Afterwards, the bitterness, the agony, and all the torment involved in addition to the natural and shared grief at the awful loss of a child is captured in the words of the respective and now estranged parents.

Somewhat mildly and perhaps in understatement, Arliss Hughes begins by saying: "I am a little disappointed with today's procedural decision.

"Not a day passes without me thinking of my wonderful daughter Bethany. Her exuberance, thoughtfulness, and maturity brought much joy to our family, her friends and schoolmates."

She says: "It is unfortunate Mr. Hughes still cannot come to grips with the reality that Bethany's tragic death was due to her terminal leukemia . . . it is offensive and deeply disturbing for Mr. Hughes to now blame Bethany's death on me, Bethany's friends, her doctors, the hospital in Edmonton (where Bethany ultimately died) and our faith."

Meanwhile, Lawrence Hughes is pleased at this day's procedural victory.

Then, with scarcely concealed passion and intent, he vows: "I will now continue this fight, for Bethany's sake, until there is no breath left in my body . . . or until my two other daughters are safely out of harm's way."

He swears Bethany was in no condition to make wise decisions about her treatment herself . . . saying that the Watchtower Society had "pressured and brainwashed her" against accepting the blood transfusions.

"I would have gone to hell and back for Bethany, and I did. I would go to hell and back for my other daughters, and, if I have to, I will."

He says his victory means he can bring forth more evidence about the crucial treatment decisions made in Bethany's case, her final days, and expose the fact that his daughter did not really accept she must not have transfusions.

"And hopefully when that happens it will be Bethany's first opportunity to tell her story in a sense . . . for people to hear her speak through that evidence."

For Bethany, the pain is blessedly over.

But as this complex, grave and emotive case now moves forward into new chapters, it is obvious that the pain and acrimony of the divided family she left behind will not only endure but intensify.

(c) The Calgary Herald 2005

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