Bioethics Blogs

Aboriginal Rights and the Welfare of First Nations Children

Amy Mullin considers the conflict between the duty to respect aboriginal rights and the duty to protect child welfare.


In the past year, two First Nations families living in Ontario have had to make difficult decisions about their very ill daughters, decisions that have put them in conflict with the recommendation of doctors. Both girls were diagnosed with leukemia and both families chose to forgo potentially life-saving chemotherapy to pursue alternative treatment at a United States facility licensed to offer massage therapy. In the most recent case, the hospital took legal action, seeking to force treatment upon the girl. The family’s decision to forgo chemotherapy was upheld by the Ontario Court, in part, on the basis of aboriginal rights.

These two cases are very complicated. First, both children (aged ten and eleven) are old enough to have views about their own treatment that should be taken into account, but young enough not to be entitled to have those views taken as decisive. In this way, the children were held to be unlike adults capable of making autonomous decisions reflecting their beliefs and values, whose autonomy should be respected. Second, chemotherapy, the recommended treatment, is painful and debilitating, difficult for a child to experience, and difficult for a parent to observe. Third, the parents’ decisions to reject conventional medical treatment flowed not from merely personal views about health and healing, but also from communal values shared by a community that has experienced institutional racism, and that has had children taken from them as a result of this racism.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.