How to handle the issue of a child's refusal of medical treatment in New York.

Understanding the Legal Framework

In New York, the issue of a child refusing medical treatment presents a complex interplay between legal rights, medical ethics, and parental responsibilities. Under New York law, individuals under the age of 18 are generally considered minors and are not legally empowered to make most medical decisions for themselves. However, exceptions exist under specific circumstances such as when minors are deemed 'mature minors' or when they are 'emancipated minors'. These terms refer to youths who have demonstrated the maturity to make informed decisions or those legally recognized as independent from their parents.

It's important to note that while parents or guardians typically have the right to make healthcare decisions on behalf of their minor children, this right is not absolute. In cases where a child's health is at risk and the child refuses treatment, courts can intervene to protect the child's welfare.

Navigating Parental Consent and Child Assent

Parental consent is typically required for medical procedures on minors. However, it's also considered best practice for healthcare providers to seek the assent of the child—meaning that the child agrees to the treatment. While assent is not a legal requirement, it reflects respect for the child's developing autonomy and can be important in ensuring cooperation with the treatment plan.

When Children Refuse Treatment

When a child refuses medical treatment, healthcare providers must carefully assess the situation. If it's determined that the child possesses sufficient maturity to understand the implications of their decision, providers may give more weight to their wishes. This assessment often involves evaluating the child's age, ability to understand information, and capacity to appreciate consequences.

In situations where a refusal of treatment could lead to severe harm or death, healthcare providers are obliged to act in the best interests of the child. This may involve seeking court intervention to override the child's refusal. A landmark case illustrating this point involved Angela Carder, who was forced by court order to undergo a Caesarean section in an attempt to save her baby, despite her wishes not to have surgery. Although this case occurred in Washington D.C., it exemplifies the tensions that can arise between patient autonomy and perceived best interests.

Legal Interventions in New York

In New York, if a disagreement arises between healthcare providers and a child's refusal of treatment, and there is no resolution through discussions with the child and family, legal intervention may be sought. This often takes the form of a petition in Family Court or Supreme Court for an order authorizing medical treatment. The courts will consider evidence from medical experts, testimony from parents or guardians, and may also take into account the minor's own views.

The court’s primary aim is to act in the best interests of the child—a principle grounded in both state law and judicial precedent. The landmark case of In re E.G., found that when a minor refused life-saving medical treatment on religious grounds, courts had the authority to override that decision because of compelling state interest in preserving life.


Handling a child’s refusal of medical treatment requires a delicate balance between respecting emerging autonomy and ensuring protection from harm. In New York, this process is guided by legal standards that prioritize a child’s welfare while considering their maturity level and capacity for decision-making. It remains imperative for healthcare providers and legal professionals alike to navigate these waters with sensitivity towards both legal mandates and ethical considerations.