What was supposed to be the happiest day of Éloïse Dupuis’ life – the day she became a mother – instead became the last. Dupuis hemorrhaged while giving birth and, while the doctors managed to save her child’s life, they were helpless to save hers since Dupuis, a Jehovah’s Witness, had specifically withheld consent to a blood transfusion.
For those of us who are not religious, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would rather die than accept a life-saving procedure that presents little risk. That said, a bedrock medical principle is that intervention requires consent (save in cases where consent must be presumed, such as when a patient is brought to the hospital unconscious). Unfortunately, some have decided that this cornerstone of medical ethics and law should be set aside when a person refuses consent for what they deem to be unsatisfactory reasons.
The Coalition Avenir Québec, the province’s second-largest opposition party, released a statement declaring that such a thing “must never happen again” and calling for a system of urgent judicial review in cases where life-saving treatments are required but consent has not been given since medical staff are there “to save lives and not to settle legal questions.” It concluded with a call for “clear and precise directives” to ensure that consent has properly been given.
The idea that when a patient starts hemorrhaging on the operating room table the doctors should wait for a judge to hear arguments and deliver a ruling is profoundly absurd. But, more crucially, the statement’s unsubtle undertone is that anyone who declines life-saving treatment could not be thinking straight, and therefore any such decision should be ignored. And in case the meaning was unclear, party leader François Legault proclaimed that he “cannot accept that we would let a Quebecker die for religious reasons.”
On an emotional level, it’s almost impossible to avoid a reaction like Legault’s. After all, a young woman is dead and a child motherless for what seem to most of us like ridiculous beliefs. But obviously, to Jehovah’s Witnesses, those beliefs are anything but ridiculous: they would rather die than violate them. On an intellectual level, the idea that the state could force treatment on someone who refuses should be deeply disturbing.
Ultimately, my body is mine alone and only I can decide who may do what to it. And if you think that this is only an issue for Jehovah’s Witnesses, consider that patients decline treatment for secular reasons, too, such as feeling that their quality of life is too low to warrant heroic intervention, fearing that the treatment’s side effects will be worse than whatever they’re suffering from, or simply preferring to follow some other course of action such as trying rest and exercise or taking alternative medicine.
It’s bad enough that the state can prevent us from medicating ourselves, such as bans on illegal drugs or unapproved medicine. But to force treatment on us when we do not wish it can be justified only on the grounds that my body is not my own but belongs instead to the collective (i.e., the nation or the state). In addition to a fundamental loss of dignity and self-determination, such a policy would have myriad unintended consequences, such as individuals electing not to go to hospital if they fear that they will have unwanted treatment forced upon them. We must not let our passions get the better of us and sweep away imperatives that are in place for our own sake.