Is it right for parents to withhold treatment for their children? There is still lingering debate about this. It is even more complicated when the child is a young teen, who may be mature enough to make his/her own decisions.
Not to long ago, there was the case of the 13-year old British girl who chose not to undergo heart surgery. She had battled cancer since childhood and the treatments resulted in heart damage. If she did not undergo a heart transplant, it was likely that she would die. But after many years of suffering and realising that the transplant meant a lifetime of immunosuppressive therapy, which has a lot of complications, she chose not to proceed. Her parents backed her on this. But the government agencies were not convinced, and for a while, there was a brouhaha over the issue. Finally, the courts were convinced that the girl was mature enough to make up her own mind. Needless to say, she also made a reasonable decision. She could have gone either way and no one would have faulted her. But the fact that she could give good reasons for her decision showed her maturity. It was nevertheless a very difficult decision, and I cannot even contemplate being her parent at that crucial time.
More recently, we hear the story of a 13-year old boy in America who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very curable type of cancer. After one treatment, he and his family decided they wanted to go the alternative route. Though his father agreed with this, he was not aware of his wife’s intentions when she and her son failed to show up for a court hearing, and instead, chose to flee.
Granted, we were not given full details of the case, but one does wonder how much the child and his parents understood the situation. We do not know if the child suffered such adverse reactions that he did not wish to continue medical treatment. We do understand that the mother was a believer in “traditional” or alternative healing practices. But even the alternative practitioner was surprised at her flight. The fact that she panicked and fled makes me wonder if she had the maturity to make a reasonable decision.
My own prejudices against alternative therapies aside, I cannot understand why someone would turn down treatment that has been shown to be effective and life-saving, to try something unproven. I have known people to use alternative therapies to “complement” medical therapy, which in my mind, is perfectly acceptable. But to reject legitimate treatment for a lot of hocus-pocus is irrational, illogical, incomprehensible, and completely dangerous. In such cases, if you separate the parent and child, you will probably find that the child cannot give adequate reasons for his decision and that he can only mimic his parent’s reasons. In some cases, you might discover that with careful logical reasoning, he may even change his mind. But then, can we suppose that the child reached his decision of his own accord? It becomes a serious ethical question that the courts will have to answer.
I’m glad to hear the mother returned with her son. But what will the decision be regarding his treatments?