Issue 10: Do Parents harm their children when they refuse medical treatment on religious grounds?
There are few areas where the state can interfere with parent’s raising of a child, but these issues addresses one of these areas; when it comes to children’s health, the state has been able to infringe on the domain of the family. As the Massachusetts citizen for children mention, the deaths that have resulted from religious exemption laws are only those that have come to public attention. There may be many more unknown cases of death, injury, prolonged suffering, or permanent disability of children due to parents’ refusal to seek medical treatment. It may seem cruel and unnecessary that children die to religious beliefs, yet many, like Sheldon, argue that a child’s spiritual health should be the highest priority.
Much of the debate surrounding this topic has focused on Jehovah’s witnesses, who refuse blood transfusions, a medical procedure that violates a fundamental tenet of their religion. But there are other religious groups for whom this debate is particularly contentious. Christian scientists, for example, refuse most types of medical interventions, both for themselves and their children, believing instead that through prayer the sick will be healed according to God’s will. Does the debate’s focus if it is on Jehovah’s Witness’s belief or those of Christian Scientists? Furthermore, although many health care professionals are familiar with the debate on Jehovah’s Witness’s denial of blood transfusion, many are incorrect in their understanding of why Jehovah’s Witnesses hold such beliefs. You should consider why this is the case, and attempts to center the discussion on some methods for addressing health care professionals’ lack of information.
Jehovah’s witnesses contend that most of the children in their community decide to become Jehovah’s witnesses themselves when they reach adulthood. For this reason, they say, a Jehovah’s witnesses parent should be allowed to refuse a potentially life-saving blood transfusion for his or her child. You should consider however, whether a Jehovah’s Witness can know that religion his or her child will choose. What if the minor as a child would agree with the parents’ beliefs yet when he reached the age of consent decided against living his life as a Jehovah’s Witness? Should doctors allow this child to die based simply on the parent’s resumption that the child would have eventually followed their religion?
Shelton argues that one cannot know whether Jehovah’s witnesses’ beliefs about eternal life are substantiated. If the child of Jehovah’s Witness grows up and chooses his parent’s religion, will he be tortured by the fact that he had received a blood transfusion as a child? Will he lament that his life on earth was “wrongly” saved (against God’s laws) and that he is therefore unable to attain eternal life? Will he blame his parents for allowing him to receive another’s blood? Did doctors jeopardize what would otherwise have been a religiously law-abiding life experience of this child, and perhaps even provoke family shunning, because they had disrespected the parents’ wishes to refuse a blood transfusion?
Culturally, there is our need to save lives instead of allowing individuals to die; yet the fact is that some Jehovah’s witnesses do not consider their lives after transfusion worth living. Is “life” after such transfusions no longer akin to actual meaningful “life” for people of this religion? Should mortal life always take precedence over the possibility of eternal life? Who should make that decision?