Thursday, August 03, 2006

Parents v. the State - Best Interests of the Child?

This case from Seattle has gotten a lot of media attention in Washington in the last few weeks. It involves a baby who was diagnosed with a condition that doctors said would require dialysis. His mother disagreed, and wanted to be able to pursue naturopathic remedies instead of dialysis, which she feared would cause unnecessary side effects. The doctors also wanted to perform a surgery to put a shunt in to facilitate the dialysis which his mother also opposed. When the mother wouldn't agree to the procedures, the doctor went to court, and a judge ordered the treatment. Before the surgery for the shunt could be performed, Mom grabbed the baby and ran. This was followed by an Amber Alert and massive media coverage. Ultimately, the mother was charged with first-degree kidnapping. As the article linked above notes, a plea agreement has been reached for the mother to plead guilty to misdemeanor custodial interference instead of felony kidnapping, and she'll get probation. I think this is a fair resolution of the criminal matter as she clearly violated a court order, although it seems clear that she never intended any harm to the child, nor did the child suffer any harm. But, I have a serious problem with what seems like a growing trend of state interference in parental decisions involving the healthcare of their children.

I understand the general principle that parents have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their children, and that sometimes, the state must step in when a parent is failing to do that. But, it seems like there are more and more instances where the state is interfering in situations where the parents are making a decision they believe is in their child's best interests, but the doctor and the state happen to disagree. It is these situations that I find quite troubling. It seems to me, that a parent should have the right to make the healthcare decisions for their children except in circumstances where that decision is completely unreasonable and dangerous for the child. The state should not be substituting their judgment for the parents. I have read about one case, for example, where a teenage boy had undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, and was suffering yet another relapse. The doctors gave him a 20% chance of surviving for another year if he underwent yet another round of chemotherapy. He didn't want to do it. He had suffered so much already, faced little hope of any long-term survival, and preferred to live his last few weeks or months with friends and family, unaffected by the harsh toxins of chemotherapy. His parents supported his decision. The doctor disagreed with their decision and went to child welfare. They, in turn, filed a petition with the court to order the treatment. Worst of all, the judge went along with it. The judge's reasoning was that he had no choice since the boy would die without the treatment. But, he seemed to ignore the suffering he would go through because of the treatment, and that he faced an 80% chance of dying within a year anyway. This, to me, seemed like a situation where the state and the courts should have minded their own damn business. If an adult in this situation chose to forgo treatment, no court would be allowed to interfere in that decision. If parents, who unquestionably loved their child, wanted to honor that child's decision, why should the government be able to overrule that choice? What if the chance of survival was 10%? 5% 40% 50% I can't think of a place to draw the line that wouldn't be completely arbitrary, but, it seems to me that if a reasonable adult could make the same choice for himself, and there is no other evidence to suggest the parents are not making the choice because they believe it is in the best interests of their child, then the state and the courts should stay out of it. What do you think?

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