Voices of moral authority: parents, doctors and what will actually help

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Abstract

The public often believes that parents have a right to make medical decisions about their child. The idea that, in respect of children, doctors should do what parents tell them to do is problematic on the face of it. The effect of such a claim would be that a doctor who acted deliberately to harm a child would be making a morally correct decision, providing only that it is what the child’s parents said they wanted. That is so obviously nonsense that it cannot be what people who claim it actually mean. In this paper, I suggest that the claim actually represents either or both of two misunderstandings. It can be a result of wrongly appealing to the principle of respect for autonomy, or a belief that doctors are not committed to acting in the interests of the child. In this paper, I show that, while neither belief is entirely justified, there are elements of truth in both. I argue that if ethically correct decisions are those that are directed to improving the quality of a child’s existence, then neither parents nor doctors are in a position to make ethically correct decisions about a child except in discussion with one another. Where such discussion is not possible, I suggest there should be a national Children’s Interests Panel to agree on the child’s interests. The panel should include, but not be limited to, paediatricians and lawyers and its decisions should be legally binding on all parties.

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