February 2, 2007

Should Freedom of Religion Include the Freedom to Refuse Life-Saving Medical Care?

ReligionNewsBlog brings us a disturbing account of a 26 year-old Jehovah's Witness who refused a blood transfusion, leading to his death. In the aftermath, his brother (a former Witness) has started an internet petition asking the federal government to prohibit the refusal of life-saving medical care on religious grounds. Should freedom of religion extend to the right to refuse life-saving medical care?

I have mixed feelings on this one. On one hand, I tend to believe that people should have the right to refuse medical care (including life-saving medical care), as long as it is freely made without coercion. I want people to have the freedom to die with dignity, including physician-assisted suicide in terminal cases. I want this right to extend beyond the "on religious grounds" part. People should have this right regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

On the other hand, the introduction of religion into this issue makes me nervous. I question the degree to which victims of religious indoctrination are truly free to make such decisions. Chronological and developmental age are already considered. However, the courts refuse to acknowledge the nature of religious delusion, and this complicates the issue. For the purposes of medical decision-making, can we consider a religious extremist to be of sound mind? Potentially tricky question I suppose.

Of course, things are much clearer when parental religion interferes with the medical care of their children (at least in my mind). In this case out of Nebraska, parents are opposing blood screening of their newborn on religious grounds. I do not support exemptions here. Innocent children should not have to suffer the cost of their parents' religious beliefs (although I realize that they often do).

For more on this topic, see biblioblography.

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