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Children Must Receive Care for Life-threatening Disease, Court Says

January 15, 1991

BOSTON (AP) _ Children with life-threatening illnesses may be forced to undergo treatments that conflict with their family’s religious beliefs, but adults can refuse medical care, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in separate cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religious beliefs forbid them from receiving blood transfusions.

One case involved Elisha McCauley, an 8-year-old girl diagnosed with leukemia.

Physicians said they needed to increase the girl’s red blood cell level through a blood transfusion to determine the type of leukemia she had. The girl’s leukemia treatments also were to involve chemotherapy in conjunction with multiple blood transfusions.

But the girl’s parents, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, refused to consent to the transfusion. A judge issued a temporary order authorizing the transfusion in July 1989, ruling that ″without chemotherapy and blood transfusions, Elisha faces certain death.″

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously upheld that decision.

″We conclude that Elisha’s best interests, and the interests of the state, outweigh the McCauleys’ parental and religious rights,″ the high court said.

In a separate case involving a woman with a bleeding ulcer, the court ruled that an adult can refuse medical treatment.

Yolanda Munoz, 38, a Jehovah’s Witness, opposed a hospital’s moves to obtain court approval to give her blood transfusions if her ulcer hemorrhaged.

The high court said the case was moot because there was no evidence Ms. Munoz’s ulcer problems would recur.

But it issued the decision ″due to the importance of the issue,″ ruling unanimously that competent adults have the right to refuse medical treatment.

″The fact that the treatment involves life-saving procedures does not undermine Ms. Munoz’s rights to bodily integrity and privacy,″ the court said.

Four of the court’s seven members refused to rule on the issue of religious freedom. The other three said Ms. Munoz had a right to refuse treatment on religious grounds.

″I subscribe to the result reached by the court only because I believe that Munoz indeed has a right, which ought to be recognized and respected, to risk death, if she deems that necessary, to preserve her immortal soul,″ Justice Francis P. O’Connor wrote in his opinion.