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Minors and Unwanted Medical Treatment

By Amy Brown
8 Jan 2015

Should anyone be forced to receive medical treatment they do not want? In September, a 17-year-old in Connecticut was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The girl, Cassandra C., told her mother that she did not want to receive chemotherapy treatment because she does not believe in putting “poison into her body,” even if she has cancer. Cassandra believes the chemotherapy will harm her body as much as the cancer; Cassandra’s mother supported her decision. The Department of Children and Families took Cassandra into temporary custody after her mother allowed her to skip several treatment appointments, saying that her mother was neglecting her by allowing her to skip appointments. Now, Cassandra is confined to a hospital room to receive chemotherapy. With the treatment, she has an 85% chance of survival. Without it, she has two years to live.

Cassandra’s mother has filed a lawsuit that argues that Cassandra is able to make her own decisions about her medical treatment. Cassandra will be 18 in 9 months, at which time she will be able to make decisions about her treatment. Adults have the right to bodily integrity, which means that they can legally refuse life-saving treatment. Minors only have this right in a few states, which allow 16 an 17-year-olds to make their cases in court. The state argues that since Cassandra has such a high chance of death without treatment, they have a responsibility to intervene.

Should minors close to the age of majority be allowed to make medical decisions and refuse life-saving treatment? Is it ethical to force treatment on someone who doesn’t want it, regardless of age? Minors this age are allowed to join the workforce, decide on colleges, drop out of school, and drive a car – but are they considered mature enough to make decisions about bodily integrity? Are medical decisions something that need to be made only by legal adults? If parents decide not to treat their child when the child also agrees, should the state take control? Do the chances of survival play a role?

Amy graduated from DePauw University in 2017, and was a Hillman Intern and the Digital Media Assistant Managing Editor at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. At DePauw, she was an Honor Scholar and Political Science major with a Russian studies minor. She has spent time abroad in the Czech Republic and now works in Washington, D.C.
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