Parents Should NOT be Given the Legal Rights to Refuse Medical Treatments for Children

Opinions on Debatable Issues #8

Normally, parents have the responsibility and authority to make medical decisions on behalf of their children. With a health-care proxy, parents can act as agents or proxies of their children to get information about the child’s condition, discuss options, express their wishes, and make treatment decisions when the children are unable to make decisions, including the right to refuse or discontinue treatments, even those that may be life-sustaining. 

Children's Medical Treatment and Parents Beliefs

Therefore, parents should never be legally allowed to arbitrarily decide whether medical treatments should be carried out for their children. It is true that in most cases, a child’s parents are the persons who care the most about their child and know the most about him or her. As a result, parents are better situated than most others to understand the unique needs of their child and to make decisions that are in the child’s interests. However, parents are not the medical experts and can make uninformed decisions that harm their children’s health, provided that their rights to control their children us unlimited. 

Refusal of necessary medical treatment constitutes child abuse and neglect of their child under the 1974 federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). The definition of negligent treatment includes failure to provide adequate medical care according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The likelihood and magnitude of the harm of foregoing medical treatment and the benefits, risks, and burdens of the proposed treatment are taken into consideration.

CAPTA - Child Abuse Prevention And Treatment Act


Despite the law, in recent years, 43 states had some level of exemption for parents who withhold medical care from their children on religious grounds, according to CHILD USA. That means if a parent refuses medical care for a child and opts instead for only spiritual treatment, the child won’t be considered “neglected” under the law, even if they’re harmed or die. As a result, children, especially infants or younger ones, can easily die from readily treatable conditions, such as pneumonia, appendicitis, or diabetes. There is a cure available and parents should not take the chance of life or healing from their children despite that they are too young or uninformed to make decisions for themselves. 

Researchers: Look at factors outside the family that cause child neglect -  UConn Today
University of Connecticut

Most commonly, people argue that some families are refuse medical treatment due to fiancial difficulties. It is understandable that paying medical bills, especially in the US, can be very costly and burdensome for an entire family if the child requires constant treatment and medication. However, a child’s life is at stake and we must seek solutions instead of giving up. Families can seek help from the government. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, provide preventive services like immunization, and Medical, dental, and vision coverage for a child under age 19, even if he or she has a disability or pre-existing medical condition like diabetes or asthma. Many nonprofit organizations can also help people out. The HealthWell Pediatric Assistance Fund aims to “ provide financial assistance to eligible families so their children can start or continue critical, often life-saving medical treatments, they desperately need.”

Hospital and Surgery Costs – Paying for Medical Treatment

Besides financial concerns, some parents simply refuse medical treatment because of their religion or spirituality. Many religious groups routinely reject some or all mainstream health care on theological grounds, including Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, and Scientologists. The members of the Followers of Christ refuse “all medical treatment in favor of prayer, anointing with oil, and the laying on of hands”. Christian Scientists consider most illnesses to be the result of the “individual’s mental attitude and seek healing through spiritual means, such as prayer”. They refuse modern medical procedures on the ground that these healing practices incompatible with concurrent medical treatment.

What is Christian Science? - Christian Science
Christian Science

Between 1975 and 1995, One hundred seventy-two children were identified by referral or record search with evidence that parents withheld medical care because of reliance on religious rituals and documentation and caused their deaths. There are undoubtedly more lives lost as most cases never got reported or had no medical record. 

It is not the parents’ right to martyr their children for their parents’ religious beliefs. Even though some younger children are not able to make complex decisions for themselves, it does not mean that parents are the only authority that has a say in the medical treatment of children, whose lives are their own, not their parents. Therefore, when making medical decisions that are disagreed between parents and caregivers, parents mustn’t have the right to decide arbitrarily. For those who refuse based on religious grounds, parents have no way to prove that the children will join the parents’ religion when they reach adulthood and approve the decisions they made today. Therefore, it is a violation of inalienable rights to life, liberty, and happines for parents to assume that what they think is better or what they believe is right and what should be done on their children when they are actrually doing them harms.

To ensure that the children are given the chance to be treated when making serious decisions, physicians should be legally and morally obligated to challenge the parents’ refusal of medical treatments for their children. This can be done by appealing to the court or seek help from the Child Protection Services, which reach out to children “suspected of being abused, neglected or harmed, or whose parents are unable to provide adequate care or protection”. 

Child Protective Services | Austin Family Law Attorney
Sablatura & Williams PLLC

“Faith-based medical neglect is the only kind of child abuse and neglect that’s actually protected by law in many states,” said Rita Swan, co-founder of the group Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty. The free exercise of religion, including parents teaching their children their religious beliefs, is an important societal value, it must be balanced against other important societal values, such as protecting children from serious harms, which include death, severe disability, or severe pain. Swan also argues that “parents should be given the responsibility of providing children with the basic necessities of life, regardless of their religious beliefs.” It’s only when they put their love and concern for their children’s health above all things, including religious beliefs, that they can make decisions in the best interest of their children. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “infants and children lack the ability to make autonomous medical decisions; therefore, the law generally authorizes their parents or guardians to make such decisions on their behalf.” Even though parents have the authority to refuse medical treatment in the best interest of their children, their liberty should be also be limited in cases of direct harm to third parties, such as the risk of transmitting serious infectious diseases. For instance, if their children are infected with a contagious disease that is not life-threatening, but still imposes health risks on others, the children will not be treated based on the parents’ spiritual beliefs. This can cause infection of the third party. For instance, some children are infected with COVID-19 and might only have mild symptoms. Some parents do not believe in COVID and treat it as a cold or fever and do not take precautions such as seeking medical care or wearing masks. Those children can infect elders or people with underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable. The consequences of the parents not treating their children can very likely cause serious illness and health issues of others. That should not be allowed. 

Key question for coronavirus response: What's kids' role in spreading it?
Stat News

In the US, we share the value of child protection. We save them from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and medical neglect. There is no difference between child neglect, which is “a parent or caregiver not giving the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being.” In the case of deny medical treatments when the children require professional help and the cure is available, knowledgable refusal is failing to provide the necessary support to ensure the physical well-being of a child. As the Committee on Bioethics contests, “that all children deserve the appropriate medical treatment that is likely to prevent substantial harm, suffering, or death.”

Discussing child protection in international schools | IB Community Blog
IB Community Blog


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