High court refuses appeal by Jehovah's Witness

Ethicist says girl had right to refuse blood transfusions

The Edmonton Journal/September 21, 2003
By Rick Pedersen

Edmonton -- The Supreme Court of Canada will not hear an appeal from a young Jehovah's Witness who at age 16 had a court-ordered blood transfusion against her wishes.

Candice Unland of Morinville, who turns 21 next week, said the decision is very disappointing, but she predicted the issue will not die.

"Eventually the court is going to have to face it," she said Saturday.

Unland's lawyer, Shane Brady, said the Supreme Court hears fewer than 15 per cent of all appeals and never explains why it does not hear cases.

The Charter of Rights clearly gives an 18-year-old patient the right to refuse a transfusion. Unland's appeal would have argued that a mature 16-year-old has the same Charter protection, Brady said. The problem was that the Alberta Court of Appeal refused to hear this argument, and the Alberta government opposed the Unland appeal, saying an issue not before the provincial appeal court should not be raised at the Supreme Court.

Brady said another case may one day raise this Charter issue at the Supreme Court.

Two prominent medical experts filed affidavits with the Supreme Court arguing Unland should not have been compelled to have a blood transfusion when she was 16.

The court-ordered transfusion contradicted a key principle of the medical ethics, which gives mature minors the right to decide what medical treatments they will receive unless their competence is compromised, University of Alberta bioethicist Dr. Paul Byrne said.

This principle applies to capable minors as well as adults, agreed Dr. Austin Richard Cooper, chairman of pediatrics at Memorial University and chief of the child health program at Newfoundland's Janeway Children's Health and Rehabilitation Centre.

Lower Alberta courts acknowledged Unland was a mature minor, but decided the child welfare law permitted a judge to order a transfusion.

Unland said she didn't want a transfusion during her operation to stop excessive menstrual bleeding because she believes the Bible does not allow one person to take blood from another. She also feared catching a blood-borne disease such hepatitis or AIDS.

Unland has also continued her fight in support of Bethany Hughes, a Calgary Jehovah's Witness who died of leukemia last year at 17 after an unsuccessful court battle to refuse the 38 transfusions she received during cancer treatment. Hughes had also argued she was a mature minor when she tried to stop the transfusions.

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