HEAL UoS

MMR, Patients’ Beliefs, and Legal Coercion

In 2013, Case of the week, Key Legal Concepts, Vaccination on October 21, 2013 at 7:00 am

Over the last week or so, there’s been a lot of media coverage of a case in which Theis J, sitting in the High Court, issued a declaration that two sisters aged 15 and 11 should receive the MMR vaccination. Although the courts will (rightly) tell us that any such decision concerning the MMR vaccine is applicable only to the particular case under issue, some observers may now sense a trend developing in the jurisprudence on this question.

In the particular case, various stock health care law issues arise: what should practitioners and the courts do in the face of practical disagreement between parents?; how much weight should be given to the views of ‘mature minors’?; can practical problems legitimately interfere with a principled, ‘coercive’, legal decision? (it has been reported that, despite the judgment, the vaccinations have not been given)

A further question, raised in the case, and which causes continuous tension in English health care law concerns the treatment of patients’ (and, for minors, their parents’) beliefs. It is interesting to assess this from a wide range of angles, but here let us focus on two ways that beliefs are expressed in health care decisions.

First, we may find challenges to a patient’s conclusions on a decision, brought by reference to the quality of the reasoning that led to those conclusions. Sometimes, the courts set aside patients’ expressed wishes because of patients’ apparently faulty logic. In the recent MMR case it was noted that whilst the 15 year old child objected to the vaccination on ethical grounds (she is a vegan and says she objects to the products within the vaccine being introduced to her body), she had voiced no such objection to, hypothetically, receiving treatments that also seem to offend her vegan principles, should she fall ill. This apparent inconsistency contributed to the reasons for finding her beliefs less than compelling.

Where judges decide carefully and openly (when is it otherwise?), many will argue that it is proper—especially in the case of child patients—that the courts should not uphold a patient’s ‘rights’ to harm herself, with harm judged even by the patient’s own standards; that we can legitimately, in some circumstances, protect people from their own harmful and inconsistent reasoning.

Yet a second challenge regarding beliefs, which we also find in health care law and which is much harder to resolve, is found in cases where courts essentially disregard a belief by virtue of its very content. Here, we don’t face a flaw in the patient’s process of reasoning. In theory, English health care law aims to be deferential on belief systems; legal principle tells us that generally the basis of our decisions is not for the courts or carers to question. Yet sometimes, ‘the science’, or ‘common sense’, or ‘basic reason’ seem to lead to compelling reasons to disregard a patient’s views.  In these instances, it can be much harder, on terms consistent with legal principle, to frame a judgment that sets aside the patient’s (or parent’s) decision. If such a judgment is to enjoy legitimacy, the law needs to develop coherent means of accommodating such an approach explicitly, for children and for adults.

John Coggon

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