Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Warning: controversial thoughts expressed in this post.

I've been thinking recently about rights... particularly Jehovah's Witnesses and blood transfusions. Two articles in particular have me thinking about it. The more recent one is about a Winnipeg girl who cannot refuse treatment, and a still recent but slightly older one about sextuplets.

Adults are allowed to refuse treatments. The question, however, is about children. The older girl is 15... probably old enough to make an informed decision. In this case, "three justices on the Court of Appeal [...] ruled that the treatment was justified on the basis of the sanctity of life and the duty to protect children."

In the sextuplets case, the Jehovah's Witness parents refused to terminate some of the embryos to give the remaining ones a better chance at a full term pregnancy. The parents refused on religious grounds. The babies were born premature, and two have already died as a result. Three of the babies were seized by the government in order to give them treatment, which included blood transfusions. The babies are obviously too young to decide for themselves.

So, here we have a situation where the government wanted to terminate embryos, but allowed parents to choose not to, then fought to save the babies from the beliefs of these same parents that caused them to be born in the first place. From an abstract point of view, it seems rather hypocritical. I suppose it falls back to the argument about when a clump of cells becomes a person. (I think, personally, I believe it happens around the time that the fetus can survive outside the womb. A woman can then still choose to have the fetus removed from her body, but it then becomes a ward of the state that can be adopted, rather than terminated.) Anyway, it seems silly to let religion rule in one case, but not the other. (However, if your religion says to murder your children, I definitely don't think that should be allowed.)

Hmmm. So, religion shouldn't be allowed to kill people, but embryos rights don't overrule parents rights.

The next bit is on when people should be allowed to refuse treatment. Obviously, a premature baby can't decide for itself, however, adults can. But where does it switch from one to the other. I would think a fifteen year old could decide for themselves, as long as you could make sure a parent isn't pressuring them to decide against their will. I imagine the judge thought the kid had been "brainwashed" by the religion... but that's not going to change when the kid turns 18. So if a brainwashed 18 year old can refuse treatment, why can't a brainwashed 15 year old? In this case, to protect the child, it's really the brainwashing that should have been prevented... but that runs against religious freedom.

I think it does make sense for the government to decide for children who are young enough to not be able to make their own decisions... after all, if they're young enough that they can't make medical decisions, they're also young enough that they can't make religious decisions either. I don't think the parent should be able to decide what the child's religion is if it risks the health of the child. Just like adults aren't allowed to do other things that harm children. However, older children should be allowed to decide for themselves.


Knittah said...

You raise an interesting question - when is a person competent to refuse treatment? The law obviously ties it to the age of adulthood - 18 - but you make a good point that an 18 year old may not be any better suited to the freedom than a 15 year old.

The other interesting issue is the intersection of religion, science and law. How much should a free society tolerate a religious belief that conflicts with science? The case your describe illustrates this perfectly. It is quite an interesting policy question.

Liz said...

What confuses me is, how did those JWs conceive sextuplets in the first place? I'm under the impression that a lot of the multiple births we see these days happen because of fertility treatments... Did the parents use them? How do they justify that?

Bethany said...

I wouldn't call it hypocritical. If the government has no right or responsibility to protect fetuses by making abortion illegal, then it also has no right or responsibility to protect them by forcing someone to have an abortion.

Once the babies are born the rules change: the government can and does protect them by making it illegal to murder them, and it also protects them by maintaining the right to take them from parents it believes aren't caring for them properly.

As far as the age thing goes: there's no magical line that determines whether or not you are competent to make life and death decisions for yourself. You just have to pick an arbitraty one somewhere, and 18 seems like as good an age as any.

I was interested to learn that the age of consent is 14 in Canada, but that there is talk of raising it to 16. If a 15-year-old is deemed incapable of deciding to have sex, then deeming them capable of making life-and-death medical decisions would be rather inconsistant. Likewise, if they're consdered too young to decide to enter into a legally binding contract, shouldn't they also be considered too young to make these sorts of decisions.

Personally, I think 21 would be a much better age of majority in this day and age, but (at least in the US) if we did that we would run out of people to go fight our wars for us... and we couldn't have that, could we?

noricum said...

The JWs did indeed use fertility treatments. JWs aren't against all medical treatment, just blood transfusions.

Stariel said...

I think it's an arbitrary line that you have to draw somewhere - and precedent says it's been drawn at 18. Maybe 15 is old enough to decide, but what's the big difference between 14 and 15, then 13 and 14, then 12 and 13. There isn't really a point where you can say there's a significant difference, so an arbitrary age (18) was chosen and now it works that way.

einsteinella said...

Most of these decisions have to do with preventing future litigation. Case: a new mother bleeds to death after the birth of her baby because she refused to get a transfusion. She put it in writting before her hospialization, declined it until her dying breath. Hospital does not give her blood against her wishes. Her family then sues the hospital on the child's behalf, saying the hospital "denied this child his/her mother" Family wins. Hospital out boatloads of money. In a litigous society, lawyers & judges made decisions based on previous rulings and how likely they are to be sued for this or that course of action after the path is chosen. Doesn't always seem to make sense until you hear the case upon which the decision is based. Food for thought.

Paulina said...

The problem with "age of majority" is that adolescents mature to the point of being able to make responsible life decisions for themselves at different rates. Each person is different. Some of us were quite capable of making good responsible decisions at 14 or 15 years old. Other folks aren't until LONG after they reach 21.

I'm currently in favor of leaving the age of majority where it is, at 18. I think by that point more people are capable of making mature reasoned decisions than not, and it's silly to punish those who are capable just to protect those who are not. I think the drinking age should be lowered to 18 as well; if you're capable of deciding to go to war and potentially die for your country, you ought to be capable of deciding to have a drink or two. Plus there's the fact that most college-age "kids" are at least experimenting with alcohol anyway; let's focus on teaching them to drink responsibly and stop arresting them for possessing alcohol.

As a tangent, I found it interesting and a little disturbing when I filled out my hospital pre-admission paperwork that minors who give birth can't make decisions about their children -- the minor's parent gets to make the decisions. There was a form in there about allowing some company to take a picture of your child shortly after birth (which I declined; we can take our own pictures, thank you very much), and there was a line on the form that if the mother of the newborn was a minor, their parent had to sign giving permission for the newborn's picture to be taken (not sure how this works if the newborn's father is not a minor; maybe he can just sign it instead of the mother).