Bodily integrity and autonomy of the youngest children and consent to their healthcare

Clinical Ethics (forthcoming)
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Abstract

Children's autonomy includes, as far as possible, self-determination, bodily integrity and the right to influence outcomes. Limits to bodily integrity, which involves no touching without the child's consent or tacit agreement, are discussed. The clinical, legal and ethics literature tends to agree that children may give valid consent to major recommended treatment from around 12 years but may not refuse it until they are legal adults. Research shows that young children are more aware of their bodily integrity and autonomy, of morality and decision making, than was assumed in the past. Adults therefore need to inform children and respect their initially instinctive efforts to protect their bodily integrity. Unlike assent, consent involves patients being adequately informed and being able to accept or refuse proposed treatment. Reasons are given for adults’ need to consult with children when determining their best interests. Beyond words, giving or withholding consent also involves emotions of fear, trust and courage, besides embodied reactions of cooperating with treatment or resisting it, in which young children actively engage. Some clinicians work with the informed cooperation of young children who need lifesaving treatment, and at times accept their refusal. Reasons for differences between mainstream experts’ views and clinical practices are considered.

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