The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court admirably performed a delicate balancing act on Tuesday. In two separate but related rulings, the court protected religious freedom but placed necessary limits on it.Both cases concerned Jehovah's Witnesses, who are forbidden by their religion to receive blood transfusions.
Eight-year-old Elisha McCauley, a leukemia patient, was the key figure in one case. In order to discover her leukemia type, doctors wanted to give her a transfusion to increase her red blood count. But her Jehovah's Witnesses parents refused to consent. The court overruled them.
The second case involved a hospital's request to give a blood transfusion to an adult Jehovah's Witness against her will. Doctors wanted to give 38-year-old Yolanda Munoz a transfusion in case her bleeding ulcer hemorrhaged. Although Munoz' condition improved, and she didn't need a transfusion, the court went ahead and ruled that Munoz had a right to refuse treatment.
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Adults should not as a rule be forced to undergo medical treatments they expressly don't want. That violates constitutional values of religious freedom and privacy. On the other hand, the Constitution does not protect adults who endanger children in the name of God. Children in life-threatening circumstances must have full access to medical care.