The death of John Travolta’s teenaged son, Jett, sparked speculations that Jett was autistic and that his death could have been prevented had his parents allowed conventional medical treatment for the seizures the boy suffered from for most of his life based on the teachings of the Church of Scientology to which they belong.
Jett’s parents deny he was autistic. Hence, whether or not his death could have been prevented by a simple deviation from Scientology practices is highly debatable. The speculations, however, provide a good opportunity to look into some of the professional, legal and ethical issues spawned by clashes between religious beliefs and medical treatment.
It’s not a new issue by any means. The Church of Scientology’s position that mental disorders do not exist and do not, therefore, merit medical treatment is only one of many controversies. The refusal by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, to accept blood transfusion even in emergency situations is probably the most well known conflict. From “Medical ethics: blood transfusions” in the BBC web site:
“In 2000 the Witnesses changed the rules on blood transfusions so that the Church would no longer take action against a Witness who willingly and without regret underwent a blood transfusion. Some people wrongly interpreted the change as meaning that Witnesses could now accept blood. But the actual change was just that the Church would not take disciplinary action against that Witness.”
In November 2007, 22-year-old Emma Gough died of hemorrhage at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in Britain after giving birth to twins. Prior to delivery, she signed a document insisting that she not be given blood transfusion.
Emma Gough was an adult and was within her rights to make such a decision. But what if the person who needs blood transfusion is a very young child and the parents refuse to give consent? How old should a child be to make a valid refusal to receive blood for religious reasons?
Also in November 2007, nine months after he was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness, 14-year-old Dennis Lindberg of Mount Vernon, Washington, was diagnosed with leukemia and started undergoing chemotherapy. Doctors stopped the treatment after his blood count became too low and he refused transfusion on religious grounds. He died in the same month after a highly publicized lawsuit where a Superior Court Judge denied the motion of Washington’s Child Protective Services to compel the teenager to undergo blood transfusion.
The most eerie part of Dennis Lindberg’s case is that he had not been a Jehovah’s Witness for a long time. And the fact that at such a young age he had been evangelizing his new religion door to door makes one wonder if there had been an element of undue influence and fanaticism.
An even more serious aspect of the religion-medicine debate revolves around ethical practices of medical professionals. Is a doctor professionally obliged to provide treatment and perform procedures that go against his religious convictions, or even provide patients with information about where to avail of those treatments and procedures should he refuse to dispense or perform them?
In the Feb. 8, 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the result of a research study on that very subject was published. Doctors were asked if, upon a patient’s request, they were willing to (1) administer terminal sedation, (2) prescribe birth control to teenagers without parental consent, and (3) perform abortion for failed contraception. If not, would they provide information as to where the patient can avail of these services? The findings say there are doctors who believe that they are not obliged to dispense treatment or perform procedures that are against their religious beliefs.
In the United States, a week before Christmas, more complications developed with the issuance of the amplified “right of conscience” rule which takes effect on January 18 or two days before the inaugural of Barack Obama. From Medical News Today:
“Under the new ‘right of conscience’ rule, any worker with a ‘reasonable’ connection to the delivery of health care — including employees who clean equipment — can refuse to take part in services such as abortion, dispensing birth control drugs and other forms of contraception, or offering advice about such services. Health care organizations that do not provide written confirmation of their compliance with the rule by Oct. 1, 2009, will be denied federal funding and could be asked to return funding they have received.”
Religious freedom and the right to life are both protected by the fundamental law of most modern nations, including the United States. When one party asserts one right and the other party asserts the other, which should prevail?
If, based on his religious beliefs, a doctor refuses to perform abortion on a woman who will die unless the pregnancy is terminated, who will protect the woman’s right to live? It has often been said that the right to life extends to the right to quality life. What happens when a doctor refuses to pull the plug on the life support system of a patient who is in a persistent vegetative state?
The “right of conscience” rule is just another instance where the religious bias of people in power gets translated into government policy but the implications of Mr. Bush’s latest move are far-reaching. It’s one thing for an individual to knowingly and voluntarily refuse medical treatment based on his religious beliefs but it is quite another thing for a person who took an oath to save lives to refuse to administer treatment because it goes against his religious beliefs. Separation between church and state gets more blurry everyday.