The right of adolescents to decide life and death medical issues for themselves

May 7, 2011  |  General

One of the four key principles of standard medical ethics is the principle of autonomy, which I’ve written about here. Autonomy means that patients are in control of their own bodies and make the key decisions about what sort of medical care they will (or will not) receive. For children, this principle means that the child’s parents make these decisions.

There are exceptions, as with all things in medicine. For example, if a child’s physicians believe that the parent’s choice will harm the child, the physician can ask a court to intervene. This is a very rare occurrence, but it happens sometimes. I have been involved in a few of those cases. But that’s not what I’m writing about now — I’m writing about nearly-adults, those children who are almost independent, but not quite.

The law generally defines the age of majority, the point at which a child is no longer a child and may decide these things for herself, at age eighteen, although there are variations between states. (The age is younger for so-called emancipated minors — those children who are entirely self-supporting or who are married.) What should we do when such a near-adult and her parents disagree about the treatment the child should get? There have been several recent examples of the variety of things that can happen then.

One case is that of Dennis Lindberg, a fourteen-year-old boy who died from leukemia in 2007. Dennis was a Jehovah’s Witness and, like others in his faith, rejected blood transfusions, even in life-saving situations. It is common for the courts to mandate transfusions in very small children over the objections of Jehovah’s Witness parents. The rationale for this is that a small child is too young to decide himself if he agrees with his parents. Dennis’s doctors went to court to get such an order.

But this case was different — Dennis was not a toddler or small child. He was an aware, articulate, young man who understood the meaning of both his illness and the consequences of not getting the transfusion. The court ruled that Dennis had the right to make his own choice, which he did.

His case dramatized a very grey area in medical ethics — when ought a young person be able to make these decisions on his own? In my own career I have had several occasions when an adolescent disagreed with the doctors, his parents, or both about what to do. In all those situations everyone eventually came to an understanding. That’s the best outcome, of course, but these will always be ambiguous situations because children mature at differing rates. Some thirteen-year-olds are wiser than seventeen-year-olds. For that matter, some young adolescents are wiser than others who have already attained the magic age beyond which we give them the right to make all these decisions.

If you are interested in these kinds of ethical questions as they relate to children, here is another example of a teen (with the support of his parents) going to court to assert his right to refuse standard therapy for cancer.


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