The society we live in today revolves around the idea of individualism and self-determination. As we get older, we drift closer and closer to independence and freedom. This drift is driven by the sudden ability to make decisions by ourselves without asking for help from our parents. The question, however, is “at what point are you still too young to make important decisions on your own?” This question can have multiple answers, with the obvious one being “once you reach the age of consent”. The problem in today’s world is that the perceived age of adulthood or maturity is lowering, which means that more and more children below the legal age of adulthood are gaining a sense of autonomy, and the belief that they are capable enough to make the right judgement when it comes to decision making, especially judgements regarding their own health.
The question of whether or not children should require parental consent before receiving vaccines involves careful consideration of both the responsibility of medical professionals and the responsibility of parents. Unlike other provinces, Ontario gives everyone, including children, the ability to choose whether or not to receive vaccinations without parental consent. However, there are problems that arise when it comes to having the freedom to make medical decisions autonomously as a minor, and these issues are ultimately what lead to the important conclusion that children should be required to receive parental consent prior to being vaccinated.
Try to step into the shoes of a primary school aged child. As a 12-year-old, making sound and rational decisions is a much more difficult process than it would be for an adult. If a medical practitioner were to describe the risks associated with being vaccinated to a child of this age, the child would likely be unable to fully understand the scope of what was explained to them. Although they may have a vague understanding of the situation, it would be extremely difficult for them to make a sound and rational “yes” or “no” decision. The fact that children do not have complete decision-making capacity when it comes to complex medical decisions makes it clear that they should not be able to give assent or dissent on such decisions without their parents’ permission.
Although minors should not be able to make decisions solely on their own, that does not mean that they should not be involved in the decision-making process. However, it would obviously be illogical to allow them to solely decide whether or not they choose to receive vaccinations given the possible risks and complications associated with getting them. An important point to consider is the responsibility of the medical professionals involved in the decision-making process, such as doctors, nurses, and surgeons. It is the professional and legal responsibility of health care providers to obtain informed consent prior to immunizing minors. An essential role of physicians and nurses is to communicate information to both the child as well as their parents, giving them a clear idea of the risks and benefits that go with each decision. As medical professionals, it should be their jobs to ensure that the patient has a complete understanding of any procedure or medication being administered to them and that if they are incapable of making a sound decision on their own, their parents or guardians can make the right decision on their behalf.
What is also equally important is the parents’ perspective. Imagine finding out that your child was inoculated without your consent and without knowing his or her own medical history. As a parent, a situation like this would certainly be concerning, knowing the possibility that your child could have an adverse reaction to the vaccine, especially if their medical history shows past occurrences of negative reactions to medication. It’s analogous to being served a meal at a restaurant and not knowing what ingredients it contains. What if you have a severe food allergy? Would you still want to eat the meal, knowing it could possibly cause a life-threatening reaction? Or, would you rather find out what the ingredients are before you take your first bite?
In the end, this issue ends up being a matter of risk and benefit. Children consenting to receive vaccinations without fully understanding what the medication is and the risks associated with it are essentially placing themselves at greater risk, especially if they themselves do not have a clear understanding of their medical history. Therefore, no matter how important or beneficial the vaccine is, a minor should always attain their parent’s consent before receiving it. The capacity of a minor to consent to vaccinations should depend on their ability to understand the relevance of the medication, as well as an understanding of the balance between risk and benefit, as it pertains to their own health.