So here’s a question for you to mull over: When were you old enough to make your own decisions?
Chances are you were pretty young when you figured out you didn’t like the taste of broccoli. And you probably weren’t old enough the first time getting drunk sounded like a good idea.
Now ask yourself this: At what age were you old enough to make your own medical decisions?
You were probably old enough to know what you wanted or didn’t want, medically speaking, before you turned 18. Probably even before 16 or 14, although it gets murkier the younger you go. Some kids are a lot more capable of that sort of thinking than others.
I doubt anyone thinks they were young children when they were able to make their own medical decisions. Since the concept requires speech, infants are ruled out.
This means in the case of infants and anyone else who hasn’t reached that nebulous age of “old enough,” someone else — a parent or legal guardian — is making their medical decisions.
This is how it should be, right?
Or is it?
Consider that by the time someone is in his or her teens, doctors will start asking for assent, if not consent, from the teenager. That is, they’re asking to sound out the patient’s feelings on treatment, aside from the feelings of the parent.
While legally the patient cannot give consent (unless, as in some states, it’s for issues related to sexual health), the patient can assent to treatment. Or they can disagree, in which case the doctor has to decide how to navigate the suddenly rough waters.
While you’d think doctors would want to avoid situations that could place them between patient and parent, the reason they do ask for assent is because — as I’m sure we’ve all experienced firsthand — children do not always follow parents in belief.
For most of us, we deviate from our parents’ beliefs in simple ways. PC vs. Mac, Democrat or Republican, science fiction or not.
But sometimes the apple falls pretty far from the tree, and children end up disagreeing with their parents about more serious, weighty things, like religion.
Religion has typically been the reason you would find a parent in court, arguing that he/she had the right to determine a child’s medical treatment. Parents who believe only in prayer, or who refuse blood or other life-saving treatments for any number of reasons, typically justify their decisions through religion.
That changed in Seattle last week when a 9-month-old baby was smuggled from Children’s Hospital by his mother, who wanted to pursue naturopathic treatments instead of allowing the surgical implantation of a shunt that would allow him to receive dialysis for his failing kidneys.
One Amber Alert and two days later, the mother was in jail and the child back at Children’s. Friday morning, a judge granted Child Protective Services custody, and permission for the surgery the mother so strongly opposed.
Not surprisingly, this case has privacy advocates up in arms, insisting that the government has overstepped its authority, and that parental rights are what matter.
In this case, the legal logic is similar to that used in religious cases, and it’s one I have a hard time finding any ethical fault with.
A child should be allowed to live to the point of making their own choice on whether or not to receive medical treatment, and until that age, you default to the assumption of doing whatever it takes to live.