Can I Be Legally Forced to Accept Medical Treatment?
Courts can force minors to undergo medical procedures, but not adults
on June 7, 2018
Updated on July 21, 2022
If a person is suffering from a mental illness that causes them to lack the ability to consent to medical treatments, the court system and law enforcement can make health care decisions and force them to be treated by medical professionals. But what happens when the person refusing medical care is doing so not as a result of a mental illness, but a firmly held belief? Can the courts force someone to be treated?
The laws involved
Adults—meaning those over the age of 18—are able to give informed consent, or have the right to refuse treatment by medical professionals. Minors are deemed unable to fully understand the medical decisions and the future ramifications of doing so; therefore, a parent or family member must step in, as their agent, and make an informed decision on their behalf.
Competent adults have the constitutional right to privacy, which by court rulings has been interpreted to include the right to refuse medical treatments. Adults also have the protections of tort law, in that any unwanted medical procedure is considered an unwanted touch, or even assault or battery. In these area of law, minors are not necessarily given the same patient’s right.
A court can decide that a treatment is in the best interests of a child, and the court goes further to ask: Will the refusal of treatment harm the child? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, a judge or magistrate can force a child to receive a medical treatment.
Refusing medical treatments is often based in deeply held religious beliefs. The First Amendment protections of adult’s rights to freely practice their religion as they see fit can prevent treatment decisions. For example, a Jehovah’s Witness may refuse a life-saving blood transfusion based on their religious beliefs. When it comes to minors, however, the courts have denied these protections on the basis that if a child cannot give informed consent to a contract, they don’t have the legal or mental capacity to make a choice based on a deeply held religious belief, or realize the potential ramifications of their decision-making.
States also have a fiduciary obligation to preserve the lives of minors, and not accepting treatment in an emergency situation can be a death sentence for some. If a parent is complicit in or neglectful of the medical needs of a child, they can be charged with child abuse, manslaughter and even murder if the minor does not receive life-saving treatment. Child Protective Services are often involved in these disputes, and children can be legally taken from parents and forced to have the proposed treatments by a social worker.
How does this conflict begin?
For most, a doctor’s opinion is taken as the best treatment options. Others find that they can’t agree or comply with the course of treatment recommended. These conflicts have been especially contentious in childhood cancer treatments. Such was the case with Daniel Hauser and Cassandra Callender, two teenagers who were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Both minors’ parents held religious beliefs that prohibited chemotherapy treatments. In both cases, the hospital and its doctors took these minors to court to have them ordered to be treated. The courts issued orders demanding they enter treatment. And, in both cases, the teens and parents fled the jurisdictions and warrants were issued for their arrest.
Often the orders from the court have a choice built into them. Rather than ordering minors to endure painful and successive treatments that can last years, court orders tend to be more general. For example, Hauser’s order was that he be seen by an oncologist and get a chest X-ray to determine the severity of the medical condition.
If you are in a similar situation, where you or your child hold religious beliefs that are at odds with your physician’s recommendations, you will need a reputable and experienced attorney to advocate for your rights. If you are aware and prepared, these situations may be avoided. Find representation before they are needed to save yourself a lot of tumult and upset if they do.
For more information on this area of law, see our overview of health care law.