Is ethical for parents to refuse surgical treatment for their child?

The principle of autonomy is one of the four guiding principles of medical ethics, the others being beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. It means that patients have the right to decide what is done to their own bodies. For children under eighteen, the age of majority, this means their parents decide for them. What happens when parents refuse a treatment that their child’s doctors recommend? (The right of a minor child himself to refuse such treatment is an interesting and knotty related issue.)

If the doctors believe the parents are not acting in the child’s best interest, they can go to court and try to convince a judge that the court should take temporary custody of the child and appoint a guardian who will allow the treatment. I have been involved in cases like that from time to time. Usually they involve parents who, often for religious reasons, refuse a fairly standard medical treatment. A common example is a blood transfusion in a family that belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The medical treatments at issue are generally standard, well-accepted ones.

But what if the treatment the doctors want to do is a complicated, high-risk one? Perhaps a treatment that was once a highly experimental one, but which is now more mainstream, although not entirely so? What then? Do the parents have to allow the treatment or risk having the courts take custody of their child?

A recent article in the Lahey Clinic Medical Ethics Journal addresses just such a situation — surgery for an uncommon condition known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). This condition is where a child is born missing a functioning left ventricle, a key pumping chamber of the heart. Several decades ago we had no treatment for the condition — babies were kept comfortable, but they all died within a few weeks of life. Then a surgical procedure to treat this condition was devised by Dr. Norwood in 1981. The outcomes from this procedure for the first few years were dreadful, with most children not surviving. Over time, however, heart surgeons got better at doing it and the science of pediatric intensive care advanced considerably, so the majority of children now survive the initial surgery.

But what is in store for them is at least one more major surgical procedure, called the Fontan procedure, which, if all goes well, allows them to live at least through childhood and usually to adolescence at least. Many do well subsequently, although it is common to need additional surgeries. However, for many children with HLHS, their heart fails and they then require a heart transplant to survive. Most children on the waiting list for a heart transplant die before they get one.

The article from the Lahey Clinic Ethics Journal asks if it is ethical for parents, once they have learned all about this complicated and high-risk series of surgeries, to refuse and allow their infant to die. In other words, is the surgical treatment of HLHS so mainstream that doctors should go to court if parents refuse? I know cardiologists who think so, and the author of the article describes such a situation. But I also know several cardiologists who say they would never choose the surgery for their own baby. These are doctors who are in the trenches and know exactly what the Norwood procedure and its subsequent course can mean in suffering for a child. They would not put their child through that. They feel it is preferable to allow a baby to die than to subject a child to years of often painful treatments, only to have a high risk of dying as an older child or adolescent.

I don’t know what I would do. I’m too old to have any more children myself, but I could have a grandchild in the future who is born with HLHS. There is no easy answer to this question. Many medical treatments, bone marrow transplant for example, are now standard after years as experimental treatments. Even if surgery for HLHS crosses that murky divide between experimental and standard, there are others that will confront us with the same question.

For HLHS, I agree with the essayist in the article: I think parents should be allowed to refuse the treatment.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Your Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must Face, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

View 12 Comments >