Girl, 14, wheeled into court to fight transfusion

Jehovah's Witness seeks to control care

Globe and Mail/April 8, 2005
By Jane Armstrong

Vancouver -- At 14, she has already endured a cancer diagnosis, surgery, two rounds of chemotherapy, and a blood clot on her heart.

Now, the devout Jehovah's Witness from Vernon, B.C., is waging a bitter court fight to refuse a court-ordered blood transfusion.

The girl, who cannot be named because she is a minor, is asking a B.C. Supreme Court judge to overturn a lower court decision, obtained last month by B.C.'s director of Child, Family and Community Services, ordering a blood transfusion.

Her religion strictly forbids the procedure. Her parents, who are also Jehovah's Witnesses, are backing their ill daughter.

The girl believes that "it's God's will" that she not have a transfusion, according to court documents. The B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Services says she is not old enough to make that decision.

The girl was pushed into court yesterday in a wheelchair. Wan and thin, with her right leg still bandaged from surgery, she chatted with her lawyer and mother and appeared interested in the proceedings.

Later in the afternoon, she dozed off on her mother's shoulder.

It's not the first time the state has stepped in to try to force a young, ailing Jehovah's Witness to receive a blood transfusion.

In 2002, Alberta's Children's Services went so far as to obtain custody of 17-year-old cancer patient, Bethany Hughes, when her mother refused to allow her daughter to receive blood. Ms. Hughes eventually received the blood transfusions but died from leukemia.

In the B.C. case, the girl is arguing that she is mature enough to decide her course of treatment. She has not yet received a transfusion.

From the outset of her cancer diagnosis, she specified that she does not want a blood transfusion. The procedures are common in cancer patients undergoing treatment.

One of the side effects of chemotherapy is that it suppresses the production of blood cells. Transfusions are also required during or after surgery.

Shane Brady, the lawyer for the girl's parents, said the provincial court decision that ordered the transfusion last month was unconstitutional.

Mr. Brady, who is arguing the appeal, said the girl could not attend that hearing because she was in hospital. Nor did she have a lawyer.

She was consulted via telephone and wrote a letter to the court outlining her position, but Mr. Brady said she felt that her views were not being taken seriously.

"I am fully competent to make my own decisions," the girl wrote in a letter to the provincial judge.

She ended by offering to get together with the judge to expand on her views. "If you would like to talk with me some more . . . I'd be more than willing to sit down and talk."

Mr. Brady argued that the girl wants to be recognized as a so-called mature minor, a right he said is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"For [the girl], deciding whether to accept a recommended treatment is unquestionably a fundamental life choice going to the core of her individual dignity and independence," Mr. Brady said in a written brief.

Her lawyer, David Dahlgren, said she did not want to give interviews, adding the court fight has "stressed her out." The girl is still undergoing treatment.

The girl's legal dilemma began soon after she was diagnosed with bone cancer last December. She agreed to chemotherapy and even the amputation of her leg if necessary, but explained to her oncologist that she is a Jehovah's Witness. At one point, her oncologist, Dr. David Dix, told her she could die if she refused a transfusion. Dr. Dix also warned his young patient that he would contact the Ministry of Child Health and Social Services if he believed she needed a transfusion.

In February, the province's director of Child, Family and Community Services met with the girl's parents and warned that he could seek a court order authorizing blood transfusions.

The next day, the girl was assessed by a psychiatrist who concluded the girl was mentally sound. On March 8, the tumour was removed from her leg. At the same time, she also developed a blood clot on her heart, caused by her intravenous line. She was given an anticoagulant to prevent the clot from growing.

On March 15, she underwent surgery to drain a hematoma on her leg and lost some blood. The next day, the girl's father was served with a notice from the province, saying it was applying for an order authorizing blood transfusions.

Two days later, on March 18, a provincial judge in Vancouver granted the order.

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