Court: Right to Refuse Medical Treatment Can Be Overridden

A compelling state interest can lead to this.

Church Law and Tax 1993-05-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Key point: Persons can be compelled to receive emergency medical treatment even if such treatment violates their religious beliefs, if a compelling state interest exists. One such interest is the care and protection of minor children.

Does a mother with four minor children have the right to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion on account of her religious beliefs? That was the difficult issue addressed by a Florida appeals court. A mother with three minor children (ages 4, 6, and 12) entered a hospital to give birth to a fourth child. She informed her doctor that she was opposed to receiving any blood transfusions as a result of her religious beliefs (she was a Jehovah’s Witness). A healthy baby was born, but the mother experienced uncontrolled bleeding due to a severe blood condition. It soon was apparent that a blood transfusion would be necessary to save her life. Since the mother was by now unconscious, hospital officials sought a court order allowing a blood transfusion. A trial court ordered a transfusion, and the mother recovered. The trial court’s decision was later appealed by the mother, and a state appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision. The court concluded that a competent adult patient’s right to refuse life saving medical treatment “will be overridden by a compelling state interest. The protection of innocent third parties is one such interest. Here, those innocents are the children.” The court based its decision on the fact that the mother was legally separated from her husband, and there was no evidence of any adult who would be able and willing to care for the four children (including the baby). In re Dubreuil, 603 So.2d 538 (Fla. App. 4 Dist. 1992).

See Also: The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment

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