A 13 Year Old’s Right to Die?

12Nov08

UK teenager Hannah Jones has been receiving intensive medical treatment since the age of 4, when she was diagnosed with lukemia.  After six operations in the last two years, her heart still only works at 10% of normal capacity. She had now taken the decision to end her treatment, which she recently went to court to stop. This is an example of passive euthanasia.

You can read about Hannah’s case here, here, and here.

It’s natural to have sympathy for Hannah.  But is the decision right?  Is a 13-year old really able to exercise their autonomy?  Child protection officers filed a court action against her parents on the basis that they were believed to be the ones ‘preventing’ her treatment from continuing. Hannah thinks that she knows what’s best for her, but isn’t that the decision we trust doctors to make for us? Certainly judges will tend to value the perspective of a medical specialist over that of a patient, especially a child.

Which is not to say that all experts necessarily disagree with patients. John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester writes, “It is not people who are competent, it is decisions that are competent. There is no such thing as being existentially competent. Once you can have decision-making capacity over anything, the competence is related to the decision… Most people would conclude, as I would, that it is perfectly rational and consistent with her best interests to want to die peacefully at home.”

At what age should one be allowed to choose whether to live or die?  Is this kind of thinking ever justified, or do we all have a moral obligation to prolong life? From a consequentialist perspective, is Hannah better off now that she has been left to die?

More to the point, what is the importance of being “rational and consistent”?  Is it important?

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