Parental refusal of life-saving treatments for adolescents: Chinese familism in medical decision-making re-visited

Bioethics 22 (5):286–295 (2008)
This paper reports two cases in Hong Kong involving two native Chinese adolescent cancer patients (APs) who were denied their rights to consent to necessary treatments refused by their parents, resulting in serious harm. We argue that the dynamics of the 'AP-physician-family-relationship' and the dominant role Chinese families play in medical decision-making (MDM) are best understood in terms of the tendency to hierarchy and parental authoritarianism in traditional Confucianism. This ethic has been confirmed and endorsed by various Chinese writers from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Rather than giving an unqualified endorsement to this ethic, based more on cultural sentimentalism than rational moral reasoning, we warn that a strong familism in MDM, which deprives 'weak' family members of rights, represents the less desirable elements of this tradition, against which healthcare professionals working in this cultural milieu need to safeguard. Specifically for APs, we suggest that parental authority and family integrity should be re-interpreted in terms of parental responsibility and the enhancement of children's interests respectively, as done in the West. This implies that when parents refuse to consent to necessary treatment and deny their adolescent children's right to consent, doctors, as the only remaining advocates of the APs' interest, have the duty to inform the state, which can override parental refusal to enable the doctors to fulfill their professional and moral obligations. In so doing the state exercises its 'parens patriae' power to defend the defenseless in society and the integrity of the medical profession.
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