In giving or withholding permission for medical treatment for their children, parents/guardians are expected to safeguard their children’s physical health and well-being and to nurture their children’s developing personhood and autonomy; Physicians should evaluate minor patients to determine if they can understand the risks and benefits of proposed treatment; The more mature a minor patient is, the better able to understand what a decision will mean, and the more clearly the child can communicate preferences, the stronger the ethical obligation to seek minor patients’ assent to treatment.
Physicians have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of minor patients, within certain limits. In some jurisdictions, the law permits unemancipated minors to request and receive confidential services relating to: contraception, pregnancy testing, prenatal care, delivery services and care to prevent, diagnose, or treat sexually transmitted disease, substance use disorders, or mental illness.
In many jurisdictions, unemancipated minors are not permitted to request or receive abortion services without their parents’ (or guardian’s) knowledge and consent. As such, when minors seek abortion care, this may create a conflict between the value of confidentiality and the legal obligation to obtain parental consent.
Decisions not to initiate care or to discontinue an intervention can be emotionally wrenching for the parents of a seriously ill newborn. Physicians should help parents, families, and fellow professionals understand that there is no ethical difference between withholding and withdrawing treatment, when an intervention no longer helps to achieve the goals of care or promote the quality of life.
Genetic testing of children implicates important concerns about the minor patient’s present and future autonomy and best interests. Decisions to test must balance multiple considerations, including: likely benefits, the risks of knowing genetic status, features unique to the condition(s) being tested for (such as age of onset), and the availability of effective preventive, therapeutic, or palliative interventions.