Treat or don’t treat: parents v. state

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    By Kristen Curran

    Parents” rights are a heated issue at the state legislature. Sen. David L. Thomas, R-South Weber, brought Senate Bill 90, medical neglect, to the senate health and human services committee for a third time. The bill would give parents the right to refuse medical treatment for their children.

    Parker Jensen is one of many cases that would be affected by this bill. Jensen was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2003 and his parents refused chemotherapy, opting for alternative treatments. Jensen”s parents faced several charges including medical neglect.

    This bill states, “That sever child abuse or neglect does not include the medical decision of a competent parent who has no prior history of abuse or neglect.”

    Thomas proposed several changes in the bill based on comments heard the last time the bill was in front of the committee.

    Defining competent parents was an issue for several committee members and lawyers present. The term was changed to conscientious caregiver. This includes grandparents and daycare workers. By changing the term a competent parent who is under the influence of drugs cannot be included. The bill also makes exclusions for legitimate religious practices.

    Assistant Attorney General Craig Barlow opposes the bill.

    “Neglect is defined incomprehensibly,” Barlow said. According to Barlow, the wording of the bill makes it impossible for an incompetent parent to commit neglect.

    Thomas said the state has taken away parent”s rights over the past four decades and Senate Bill 90 would again give parents the right to make medical decisions for their children. Thomas said current Utah law favors doctors.

    Sen. Ron Allen, D-Salt Lake, is opposed to the bill. He asked Thomas, whether this be used to justify abortion, whether parents can make decisions based on financial concerns and how would the state treat religions that starve the child?

    “This is a public policy issue,” Thomas said. According to Thomas there is already a law protecting religions and abortion is not the issue he is dealing with.

    In life and death emergencies doctors would have 24 hours to have a judge declare a parent incompetent beyond a reasonable doubt, with clear and convincing evidence.

    Bill Barnes, director of Community Relation for Primary Children”s Medical Center, said doctors make judgment calls, which go through several legal checks and balances. He said when medical neglect is in the news only one side is told due to strict confidentiality laws.

    “Parents have stewardship over children but don”t own them like a car,” Barnes said.

    Val Bateman, director of Government Relations for the Utah Medical Association, addressed the committee.

    “Parents must assume all liability with decisions,” Bateman said. He emphasized doctors should not be held responsible for the child”s outcome should parents refuse treatment.

    Richard Anderson, director of Child and Family Services, said a conscientious parent is different from a conscientious medical decision. He said this bill makes medical decisions and issue of parent vs. child. According to Thomas the bill is parent vs. state.

    Anderson said the bill is dealing with issues that caseworkers deal with everyday. If the bill is passed, caseworkers would have to back off in situations where death or lifelong disability could result.

    Sen. Peter C. Knudson, R-Brigham City, made a motion to have the bill sent back to interim study.

    “Putting this under the rug ignores the issue,” Thomas said.

    The substitute motion failed on a tie and a motion to send the bill to the Senate floor also failed on tie.

    “The parents are at the mercy of the state,” Thomas said. “Families first didn”t win today.”

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