Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

When Religion and Medicine Disagree

By Peter Bowditch

Should doctors be able to overrule parents who refuse life-saving treatments for their children due to religious beliefs?

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (

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Many people would be aware that members of the Jehovah’s Witness faith reject blood transfusions on religious grounds. While it must be distressing for doctors to have to withhold a transfusion when it would save someone’s life, we generally allow adults to make decisions that affect their own lives.

In the case of children, however, we take a different attitude. Courts in Australia have ruled as recently as June this year that transfusions can be given to the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite the objections of the parents, if they are done to save the child’s life.

Another situation where religion and medical ethics come into conflict is where the patient’s life is being artificially maintained when there is no hope of recovery. In the vast majority of these cases, relatives or carers give permission for intervention to be withdrawn and the patient dies peacefully. On rare occasions families will take court action to force the continuation of treatment, and these cases usually divide the public over issues of religion and the sanctity of life. Sometimes there is the vain hope expressed that a cure might be found, but usually the arguments reflect the euthanasia debate – at least when adult patients are concerned.

It is different in the case of children, where the decision-makers are parents. In a recent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.