A child is on life support with little hope of recovering. The parents, who are deeply religious, want treatment to continue (despite doctors’ pessimism), believing a miracle will occur.
What should be done?
The morals behind such scenarios are the subject of a study in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Researchers reviewed 203 cases over three years in the U.K. that dealt with children’s end of life issues, the treatment their parents wanted, the treatment recommended by the medical staff, and how the cases were resolved.
In 186 cases both the parents and healthcare professionals came to an agreement about stopping treatment that was aggressive but considered ineffectual.
In the other 17 cases parents and the medical team were at loggerheads, with parents wanting to continue full treatment and doctors wanting to stop existing or future treatment based on medical evidence.
In 11 of those 17 cases parents’ decisions to continue treatment were based on religious beliefs. Those beliefs—which included Christian fundamentalism, Judaism, Islam and Roman Catholicism—included faith in a divine intervention for a cure and a distrust of doctors’ opinions.
Five of the 11 cases found resolution after meetings with religious leaders, and one case went to court. The remaining five went unresolved, and medical treatment continued. Four children eventually died, and one lived but with severe brain damage.
While the study authors said they understand why parents would want to try every medical avenue possible to save their child, they question the humanity of continuing extraordinary care. They also argue that since very young children can’t choose a religion, perhaps their parents’ beliefs shouldn’t be considered the default position.
The authors also said that in a number of cases they found “unorthodox interpretations of religious teaching. … The use of religious teachings to perpetuate a situation that appears futile and which may result in distress to the child needs to be questioned.”
They added that existing ethical and legal principles should be reconsidered, and courts should be readily accessible when children’s best interests may be compromised by parents’ expectations of a miracle cure.
The paper was followed by four editorials released this week writtten by Oxford University professors who offered other views of dealing with ethical and medical impasses, such as talking with ultra-religious parents on their own terms and that idea that neither religious nor secular beliefs should be put in the way of the best interests of the child.
Should religious parents be allowed to determine end of life care for their children? Let us know in the comments.
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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine | TakePart.com