Suffer not the little children?

February 3, 2007

It’s an old story, but it never ceases to amaze me. Parents refuse life saving medical intervention for their children on the basis of their religious beliefs (Jehovah’s Witnesses in this case, but could just as easily be Christian Scientists or any one of a number of groups with similar prohibitions). The government steps in after two of the children die and has the remaining children treated.

Officials had this to say:

“Our obligation to protect children is paramount,” British Columbia Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen told reporters yesterday after it was revealed three of the children were taken into protective custody temporarily.


“We don’t take any such action without a great deal of forethought, recognising that it’s a significant step for the state to interfere in a family,” said Mr Christensen. “But we want to ensure in every case that children are receiving the attention they require.”

If someone refused treatment for their children because aliens (who talk to them through a radio in their head) told them it was wrong, they’d be put in an asylum. It seems that the legitimacy and the respect afforded to the belief of a particular invisible person is a function of the number of people who believe it.

The father said in an affidavit:

“My wife and I deeply love our babies and want them to live. We continue to be heartbroken about the death of two of them. We will not, however, consent to blood transfusions. We firmly believe that our creator commands us in scriptures such as Acts 15:28-29 to abstain from blood products”

So the government minister says that a child’s welfare trumps the family’s religious beliefs, while the family claims their right of religious freedom has been violated. The children obviously cannot decide for themselves, but I’m not sure I can countenance the parent’s applying their beliefs to them. To be honest, I don’t understand how anyone can follow a religion that stops them from allowing relatively simple treatment that would greatly increase the children’s chances of survival.

University of Victoria bio-ethicist Eike-Henner Kluge argued that freedom of religion guaranteed in Canada’s constitution does not apply to babies because they cannot express their wishes.

“While the parents are at liberty to make martyrs of themselves, their children aren’t,” he told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

I don’t have children of my own, but if my step daughter’s life was in danger I’d do just about anything to save her. And if I had beliefs that stood in my way, then I’d be thinking pretty hard about what was wrong with my beliefs, because there is sure as hell nothing wrong about me wanting to save my little girl.

But then I’m just an atheist. What do I know about morality?


3 Responses to “Suffer not the little children?”

  1. jeremiahandrews Says:


    This was a big STINK, here in Canada. It seems that the following of spiritual beliefs trumped life saving treatment. This family wanted this birth to be secret from the get go. It was only after the pregnancy went awry that the media and public were made aware of the babies.

    The fact that it was so rare – the births that Canada had a stake in keeping them alive, no matter the cost. It was a first for Canada. The fact that the babies were in trouble from birth, was the death knell.

    The fact that jehovah’s witnesses decry transfusions, and they rather would have God’s will be done rather than what it RIGHT puts into question, (for me) as a Religion Major, to wonder, where do we draw the line between spirituality and the “Right” choice.

    Those children are not out of danger, I am sure of that, so this story is not over. We shall see what happens next…

    Sometimes faith makes people do stupid things, this, IMO, was stupid. It is well known that they used fertility treatments and they agreed to take these babies to term, where’s the logic in not allowing those children the best chance at life…

    When religion and necessary medical treatment butt heads, people die… What the logic in God’s will if people die? Even little children? This was a very sad situation, and life I said, it isn’t over yet…


  2. Dave Says:

    I think that you kind of have to ask yourself just why the children are being refused treatment at all. Is there a specific restriction against treating any people with blood transfusions? Or does the prohibition only apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses?

    Well, the first cannot be the case. They have no right to religious beliefs that dangerously effect others who do not share their belief, so are we considering the children to be Jehovah’s Witnesses by default? Because if we are, that’s just insane. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, society wouldn’t think it reasonable to label a child as Marxist or an Existentialist at birth, so why should it be acceptable to label a child as belonging to a faith which they cannot possibly have made any conscious choice to opt into?

    The mind boggles.

  3. I think that you kind of have to ask yourself just why the children are being refused treatment at all. Is there a specific restriction against treating any people with blood transfusions? Or does the prohibition only apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses?

    The issue is this: a person needs to give consent to be given any kind of medical treatment at all. (There are some obvious exceptions, such as, say, someone who is unconscious, about to die, and about whom nothing is known. It would be defensible to do the needful in such a case.) So, a person needs to consent to receive a blood transfusion. Because a child is unable to give consent (as a matter of law), consent must be obtained from a parent or guardian. The parent or guardian can withhold consent—simple as that. In the first instance, there doesn’t even need to be a particularly good reason. The issue then becomes whether a court will overrule the parent and provide the consent, and I presume the courts’ likelihood of doing so varies from country to country. I certainly haven’t reviewed any decisions, but I suspect that in Australia, for example, the threshold would be extremely low for overturning such lunacy.

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