As I write this, there are four surviving infants of the sextuplets born last month in Vancouver. The family’s identity hasn’t been disclosed but these struggling babies have achieved instant stardom.
The birth of sextuplets brings fame enough. But a little more than a week ago, the B.C. government seized custody of three of the tots and gave two of them blood transfusions, violating the religious tenets of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Now it’s up to a judge to sort it out, since the parents have gone to court to challenge the government’s actions. The couple probably doesn’t stand a chance.
The law is clear on the issue of providing necessary medical care, including blood transfusions, to minors. The medical rights of children take precedence over religious dictates.
You can refuse any medical treatment based on whatever religious precepts you believe – even if it kills you. But you have no right to impose such nonsense on your kids.
“The substantive law is clear,” says Juliet Guichon, a medical bioethicist at the University of Calgary. “They don’t have much ground to stand on.”
It appears the couple is arguing the government didn’t give them proper notice about the blood transfusions, says Guichon, adding the problem with that argument is that they would have been warned long before the sextuplets were born that the babies would face potentially critical complications.
“This could not have come as a surprise,” she says of the need for blood transfusions.
Coincidentally, an article on the issue co-authored by Guichon appeared in the December issue of Pediatrics and Child Health. In the piece, she argued that mature minors – teens who are deemed competent enough to make decisions about their medical care – may not be refusing treatment voluntarily.
Before one can give or refuse consent to a medical procedure, the article noted, three conditions must be met: competence, adequate information and lack of coercion. A Jehovah’s Witness patient may want to accept blood but refuse because of fear of being excommunicated from the religious community, Guichon wrote.
“It may be difficult to accept a treatment option if that particular choice will lead to the loss of important relationships.
“Coercion can be a great concern in pediatric cases involving JW families,” she added.
Patients may actually welcome the intervention of the courts because the law can remove a young Jehovah’s Witness from “an impossible social position,” she wrote.
Because of the threat of religious sanctions, it’s unwise for doctors to ask teen patients whether they’ll accept blood products when other Jehovah’s Witnesses are in the room, Guichon advised.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are warned to “avoid independent thinking,” the article observed.
Do the parents of the four surviving sextuplets really object to blood transfusions for their babies or do they feel pressured to take that stand for fear of being shunned by the JW community? Who knows?
This case is surreal in so many ways. Fertility drugs, which experts assume the mother was taking, often lead to multiple pregnancies.
But given the choice to abort some of the fetuses so the others would have a greater chance of living, the couple refused. Then they insisted that the sextuplets be resuscitated. Anything to keep their babies alive. Well, except blood transfusions.
Meanwhile, University of Winnipeg bioethicist Arthur Schafer wonders why doctors are fighting to save babies for whom they originally suggested a do-not-resuscitate order.
“It’s impossible to avoid the feeling,” he says, “that there are some babies who would have been lucky if their parents hadn’t had access to the neonatal ICU.”