Medical emergencies in children of orthodox Jehovah’s Witness families: Three recent legal cases, ethical issues and proposals for management

Journal of the Canadian Paediatric Society, Vol. 11, No. 10: 655-658/December 1, 2006
By J. Guichon and I. Mitchell

Three recent Canadian legal cases have dealt with the proposed blood transfusion of adolescent members of Jehovah’s Witness (JW) families. In each case, the court permitted transfusions if medically necessary. Much critical analysis of the issue of forced treatment of decisionally competent adolescents focuses exclusively on competence and questions why mature minors may not decide for themselves. The authors argue that a focus on decision-making competence alone is too narrow. Before one may legally give or refuse consent to medical treatment, three conditions must be met: competence, adequate information and lack of coercion. In striving to find agreement on medical treatment, physicians, patients and JW family members seek and, in fact, often achieve mutual understanding and cooperation. Coercion by actual or threatened shunning and excommunication can occur, and these factors may affect adolescent decision-making. In this context, a court order authorizing medical treatment can, therefore, be seen as enhancing patient freedom. The authors suggest that, in addition to fulfilling existing statutory duties to report a child in need of protection, health care professionals caring for acute patients of JW families should actively look for evidence that the patient has accurate medical information and is acting without coercion. The authors also explore suggestions on how to deal with the unusual complexities of such cases.

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