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The Right to Refuse Treatment

May 23, 2009
Hodgkin's lymphoma
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Adults have a well-recognized right to decide for themselves which medical treatments to accept and which to refuse, at least when it comes to physical illnesses. The issue becomes murkier, however, when it comes to minors. Parents may make medical decisions for their children up to a point, but sometimes the state steps in. Such is the situation that has led Colleen Janet Hauser to flee Minnesota with her son, Daniel.

She wants to try alternative treatments for the boy’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma in place of chemotherapy. This is at the boy’s request. Courts, however, have ordered that he undergo conventional treatment.

There may be good reasons for the state to have some authority in such cases. Young children especially should be protected from the irrational beliefs and (sometimes) religious tyranny of their parents. However, at least some thirteen-year olds are capable of abstract thought and moral reasoning; they deserve to have a say in what is done to their bodies. In those rare instances in which teenagers agree with their parents, state interference seems especially problematic, no matter how silly you or I find their shared beliefs to be.

The question then becomes where to draw the line, and I don’t know the answer to that. I do know, however, that my beliefs as a feminist place a strong emphasis on bodily autonomy, so I would prefer to err in that direction.

What do you think?

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