We take a lot for granted, don’t we? As parents we assume responsibility both for the wellbeing of our children and also their voice. Somebody has to, and obviously we, as their adult guardians, are better able to decide what’s best for them than they are –especially when they are young and inexperienced. It’s hard to argue with that, of course… At least I thought so until I happened upon an article in The Guardian newspaper that started me wondering whether the arrogance of age blinds us to a conceit that should be re-examined. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/sep/26/should-children-be-able-to-give-consent-for-medical-treatment?CMP=share_btn_link
I’m not advocating the abrogation of our responsibility to make the decisions –especially in the very young- nor to neglect to act in what we consider to be their best interests. I think it’s more about soliciting their opinions and perhaps incorporating these, where feasible, in the ultimate decision. Clearly, age is a major factor in how engaged the child will be –in the UK, at least, ‘Anyone over the age of 16 can consent to treatment, but so can younger children if doctors think they can understand and are competent to make medical decisions. Neurobiological research shows that the prefrontal cortex, home of balancing risks and rewards, is the last area of the brain to mature. So can adolescents – who are often impulsive risk-takers – be trusted to make decisions about their health?’
There was an interesting 1982 study that addressed the issue of the competency of children and adolescents to make informed treatment decisions: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7172783?dopt=Abstract In it, ‘9-year-olds appeared less competent than adults with respect to their ability to reason about and understand the treatment information provided in the dilemmas. However, they did not differ from older subjects in their expression of reasonable preferences regarding treatment.’
And indeed, there has been some effort to accommodate the child’s wishes in the latest policy statement on Informed Consent of the American Academy of Pediatrics: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2016/07/21/peds.2016-1484.full.pdf For example: ‘When defined as agreement with proposed interventions, assent from children even as young as 7 years can foster the moral growth and development of autonomy in young patients. This consideration is based on an understanding that, starting around 7 years of age, children enter the concrete operations stage of development, allowing for limited logical thought processes and the ability to develop a reasoned decision.’
Of course, I am a gynaecologist with an adult practice, so I rarely have occasion to delve into the ethical minefield of paediatric consent, but occasionally I am exposed to its intricacies vicariously. These are frequently related to childhood vaccinations. In my Canadian province of British Columbia, vaccinations for hepatitis B and chickenpox as well as HPV (to females only –at the time of this writing) are offered to all children in grade 6 –in other words, to 11 year olds. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/grade-6-immunizations Of course, ‘It is recommended that parents or guardians and their children discuss consent for immunization.’ But under some circumstances, even an eleven-year old might be considered a ‘mature minor’ and could potentially consent to the vaccination on her own: ‘In B.C., immunizations for school aged children are given in grade 6 and grade 9. Most of the time, the vaccines are given by nurses at immunization clinics held at schools. Children may also get vaccines at a health unit, youth clinic, doctor’s office, or pharmacy. In all of these settings, a child can consent to the vaccine on their own behalf if the health care provider has determined that the child is capable of making this decision.’
Ruth, a thirty-six-year-old woman whose daughter I had delivered eleven years ago, returned faithfully to my office each year for a pap smear. She had a history of several increasingly abnormal smears, eventually necessitating a minor excision procedure three or four years ago for an HPV-related pre-cancerous lesion on her cervix. Fortunately there had been no evidence of recurrence since then.
She’d always been a nervous woman -her pregnancy no exception- and the subsequent abnormality on her cervix had done nothing to alleviate her anxiety. Even her clothes seemed adjectival to the noun of her angst. Exquisitely ironed white cotton sweatshirts and similarly fussed black jeans over highly polished black leather pumps were her inviolable uniform on each visit. She wore her long blond hair tied in a pony-tail so tightly pulled from her forehead, I imagined I could see tiny fissures opening up on her scalp where it was tearing. And she constantly clenched and unclenched her fists as if she were training for some hand-shaking marathon.
Everything about her usually screamed stress. And yet, when I saw her recently, she had relaxed her hair so it danced freely on her shoulders, and was actually wearing a pale blue silk blouse and a pretty black skirt. At first I didn’t recognize the smiling woman who seemed so comfortable as she sat chatting with one of my young pregnant patients. But as soon as she saw me, she stood and grinned at me as if I were a cherished friend. I suppose I was…
“Doctor,” she said, even before she sat down as I closed the door to my office. “Remember Trish?” she pronounced the name slowly, in case I didn’t remember delivering her.
I nodded and tried not to roll my eyes. She was always telling me about Trish –every visit she had something new to report –and A in spelling, or a Silver in some race she’d entered.
“Well, she’s in Grade 6 in school now…” She stopped and scanned my face to see if I could guess what she was about to tell me. She often played this game and, sadly, I never succeeded.
This time, however, she prolonged it sufficiently long that I began to wonder if she’d forgotten what she was going to tell me. “…And you’ll never guess what happened,” she finally added -probably to tease me.
I knew it would continue like this until I said something. “What?” It wasn’t a very profound response, and I think she was a little disappointed –especially in my evident lack of excitement.
“My little Trish has grown up,” she bubbled with obvious pride. And then, when I didn’t say anything, she continued. “This is the year they all get their vaccinations…” She fixed me with a suspicious stare as she tried to decide whether or not I knew that.
I held my expression to an anticipatory smile and a nod.
“Well, she decided to have the vaccination, doctor!” I could hear the exclamation mark as it rebounded off the walls. “I mean, I’d discussed it with her beforehand and everything, but it was her decision!”
I took a deep, but silent breath. “Was there ever any question about it, Ruth?”
I could see her withdrawing into her face as her eyes took turns jousting with mine.
“She had a lot of questions at first.”
She nodded –warily, I thought. Carefully. “Mainly about the HPV one, though.”
“What did she want to know?”
I felt another probing jab with from her eyes before she called them off and sighed. “It was about the boys.” I waited patiently. “She wanted to know why they didn’t have to get the HPV vaccination.”
It was a common complaint, and one that I shared. Although several weak arguments have been made for male exclusion, none of them are convincing.
“She thought boys would have the same risk as girls, and it was so unfair she wondered whether she should refuse to be vaccinated as a protest,” Ruth said proudly.
I wondered where that idea had come from –Ruth was a zealous supporter of HPV vaccinations, I knew. “So you convinced her to change her mind?”
She shook her head. “I tried, believe me. I even phoned the school to make sure they knew I wanted her to have the vaccination.” But I could tell she was pleased that her daughter had evaluated the matter so carefully. I was certainly impressed.
“So what changed things?”
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “One of the boys in the class made a face at her.” Then she sighed. “Perhaps not the most persuasive of arguments…”
All I could do was nod. If someone makes the right decision for the wrong reasons, it’s not really a teaching moment, I suppose…