On top of the complexity already inherent in this case, there are a few distortions, inaccuracies and partial truths about this story gaining traction in the blogosphere - particularly in the atheist community. This post is meant to bring to light some of those lapses in intellectual honesty. We all complain about how science is too-often misused by politicians; when dealing with an issue as controversial at this one, the least we can do is present all of the facts.
Here are some points that if you rely on blogger news, you may not have encountered:
(1) Jehovah's Witnesses were founded in 1872. Any reference to the faith being founded on Bronze Age or Dark Ages thinking is inaccurate hyperbole. The religion is based on 19th Century pre-modern medical thinking.
(2) The treatment denied by the judge was not the stem cell transplant. It was a blood transfusion. Why is this distinction important? Stem cell transplants are the single most expensive procedure in medicine (hundreds of thousands of dollars just to do the procedure). We do them (and many health insurers cover them) because they work, but not all patients facing leukemia choose to be transplanted. Some cannot afford it. Some do not want to go through the pain of the procedure. Others (like this patient) have different reasons. If after providing all of the information, the patient does not consent to a procedure, the medical establishment usually respects this decision. Keep in mind that the legal decision here was related to the blood transfusion which could keep the patient alive for several days, not the stem cell transplant, which has 70% survival at 5 years as reported in the media. It's not as simple as a 750 word article would have you believe. (The Seattle PI printed a good story overall.) The Cheerful Oncologist offers a refreshing perspective on this issue.
(3) There has been some criticism of the words "mature minor." Some say it is a contradiction. The terminology comes directly from Washington State law. Health care providers are very familiar with the term; mature minor is most often applied to pregnant teenagers and to teens who need psychiatric services. The right to make autonomous, confidential (parent-free) medical decisions about reproduction (including abortion) and mental health issues is routinely conferred to 14-year-olds. It has not been previously applied to patients with blood diseases. Joana Ramos outlines some of the issues in a white paper she authored:
Doctrine of the Mature MinorThe legal precedent in this case is that the 14-year-old was conferred mature minor status for a condition that was not reproductive or psychiatric. In his criticisms of this case, Orac makes the right concession to adult Jehovah's Witnesses regarding decisions about transfusion. He believes a grey area to apply between age 15 and 17. Based on the above examples, I think the range should be 14-17.
In most states of the US, 16 is the minimum age for donating blood with parental consent. In a variety of instances, teens are able to consent to, or refuse, medical treatments including surgery. It is customary that 14 is the age of consent for confidential reproductive health services, including elective abortions; substance abuse treatment and counseling; and for consent or refusal of mental health services, even when parents feel that a child’s life may be in danger(1).
The legal concept of the mature minor is well established in case law nationwide(2). It governs such topics the age of consent to engage in sexual activity, to marry, and to make independent and confidential decisions about medical care. The following list of rights extended to teens serves as a good illustration of this concept. Many of these rights involve activities that carry varying amounts of risk, may have both psychological and physical health consequences, and may be neither beneficial nor life-saving. While the laws vary in each state, teens commonly have the right to:
• make decisions as to one’s own guardian or custodial parent at 12
• travel and to purchase a ticket to travel by public conveyance anywhere in the US at age 13 without parental permission
• be employed at 16, but to engage in agricultural work at age 12, in other occupations at 14, with certain jobs being exempt from any age limits
• obtain a license and drive a motor vehicle at age 16
• have one’s body pierced at age 16 without parental consent
• enlist in the military at age 17, with parental consent
• petition the court to become an emancipated minor with cause
• make decisions on behalf of a child parented by one’s self at any age
1. Stenger, RL. ( 1999-2001) “Exclusive or Concurrent Competence to Make Medical Decisions for Adolescents in the United States and United Kingdom”, Journal of Law and Health, 14(2):209-41.
2. Forman, DL. (1998) Every Parent’s Guide to the Law. (pp. 87-154) New York: Harcourt Brace.
(4) Some have written this to be an ignorant backwards, if not abusive decision. To those who think this, I would invite you to seek out a Jehovah's Witness. Ask him about blood. If you don't learn from that individual, every congregation has several experts and health advisers. I bet you will learn things about bloodless surgeries (a few of which are at least as successful as traditional approaches) and artificial blood that you had know idea about.
(5) The newspapers included a fact about this case that most bloggers have left out. The patient's biological parents (who filed the injunction to force the blood transfusion) had a long history of drug abuse. They were in and out of jail, but had been in recovery only recently. They flew to Seattle days before the court hearing and the patient's death. If their son was dying of leukemia, why were they not in Seattle in the weeks and months before this incident?
The bottom line here is that this case is complex. At its center is a 14-year-old's autonomy. Closely related to that is the freedom of religion. The same individuals who value the separation of church and state have called for that wall's dismantling via a court of law. In the end, the judge looked at this young man's ability to make life and death decisions. My suspicion is that Dennis Lindberg was better prepared to make this decision than you or I.