Fifty years ago, the issue of medical treatment of minors—children under the age of 18—would never have been considered controversial. At that time, parental consent was required for almost any type of medical treatment, as it was required for any other situation involving children. Minors were simply not considered competent to make medical decisions.
However, the past 50 years have witnessed a gradual expansion of the rights of minors, and health care has been no exception. Minors who previously had no medical rights now found themselves in the position of making decisions about the most intimate medical procedures.
But the area of medical treatment of minors is still controversial, especially as it relates to certain procedures and conditions such as abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. Many states grant minors broad leeway to determine the course of their medical treatment, and others grant them very few rights. There is little agreement by either medical professionals or state lawmakers as to how far minor rights should go regarding medical treatment.
What is at issue in the debate over minor rights to medical treatment is a tension between the parental responsibilities toward the child, the immaturity and vulnerability of children, and the child’s right to be emancipated from the decision of the parent. This tension has produced a patchwork of laws and makes it difficult to make any overriding statements about minor and parental rights in regard to medical treatment.