Gillick round two?

A case is being brought by Sue Axon to challenge the right of health professionals to give sexual health information and treatment (including contraception and abortion advice) to children without their parents’ knowledge. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/child/story/0,,1637418,00.html.) She claims this breaches article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to respect for family life. This isn’t a simple repeat of the Victoria Gillick case, who argued that parental consent was necessary for giving contraception to under-age girls: Sue Axon just wants the right to know. But it’s going to be difficult to argue that a child has the right to make possibly fairly drastic decisions about their own health treatment, but not the right to decide who should know about them. And if you demand parental notification, you’re then going to get very difficult cases about whether girls are being effectively coerced into having/not having an abortion by their families. Parents have a lot of leverage over children, up to and including throwing them out of the household if they don’t do as they want, and it’s possible they may abuse it.

I can have some sympathy with Sue Axon’s point of view: she is saying that parents should be available to support a girl who is making a very difficult decision about abortion, and she’s prompted by regrets about an abortion she once had. But it seems to me that she’s wrong to try and argue for a legal remedy for this problem. (There are parallels here to Bitch PhD’s comments on spousal notification as morally obligatory versus legally obligatory ((see http://haloscan.com/tb/bitchphd/113141609567346086). The law has to be there for all cases, including the worst, and clearly there are some cases where it would be wrong or actively harmful to inform the parents (e.g. if there’s suspicion of abuse). And it’s almost impossible to think of a way of deciding judicially what such cases should be. How realistic would it be to have confidential judicial hearings, for example, for a child to argue that their right of confidentiality should be preserved? I think you have to have a right to confidentiality, and then you have to have strong guidance to health professionals (as there is already) to do everything they can to encourage children to talk to their parents. The Family Planning Association seems to have made a rather arrogant and poorly worded response in the case (judging by the report at http://www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1640257,00.html), but the statement on their website (http://www.fpa.org.uk/news/press/051107.htm) is better and makes the good point that fears about confidentiality would put a lot of children about seeking advice on any sexual matters.

There also seems to me a rather tragic air about the case, that there wasn’t about the Gillick one. Mrs Axon is seeking to prevent her children suffering in the way she did, but even if she got her way, it would not have altered anything in her case, since she was of age when she had an abortion. Meanwhile, it has been reported that her oldest daughter has become pregnant since Mrs Axon began bringing the case (http://www.guardian.co.uk/child/story/0,,1639368,00.html). Since the girl’s 16 it’s not clear that any supposed change would actually have affected the outcome. But I do wonder whether Mrs Axon’s concentration on the case has affected the time and energy she’s had available to give her own children. As for her argument that the pregnancy was encouraged by the availability of confidential advice, that’s pretty weak. The one thing that’s clear is that the daughter didn’t get advice about contraception or abortion (or at least didn’t follow it).

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