Parliament agrees on granting 16-year-olds right to own medical consent

Government and opposition agree to vote in favour of a private member’s bill presented by Godfrey Farrugia

16- and 17-year-olds will no longer require parental consent to visit doctor, seek diagnosis and to refuse or accept treatment
16- and 17-year-olds will no longer require parental consent to visit doctor, seek diagnosis and to refuse or accept treatment

16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to give their medical consent in cases of consultation, investigation or treatment – without needing their parents’ consent – since it was intellectual maturity and understanding, and not age alone, that mattered, government whip Godfrey Farrugia said on Thursday.

Farrugia, who was speaking in Parliament in the second reading of a private member’s bill he presented to amend the Health Act, said that many teens were already consulting doctors without their parents’ knowledge.

But, under the existing legislation, doctors would be duty-bound to reveal information on the teen’s consultation or condition to the parents, if asked.

The age he was proposing – 16 – had already been identified as the suitable cut-off point under 18, where these teens could enjoy a number of established civil rights.

Farrugia said the amendments he was proposing would further empower 16- and 17-year-olds to continue looking out for their own well-being.

He said that this would also affect the country’s national health outcomes and indexes, which should improve since preventable lifestyle diseases would be tackled earlier and swifter.

These diseases include diabetes, high blood pressure, cardio-vascular diseases and some forms of cancer.

Teens visiting doctors on their own would be subject to a discussion with their doctor on health and safety, the importance of sport and activity, healthy eating habits and the risks of addiction to drugs, alcohol or smoking.

Opposition MP Michael Gonzi said that, while agreeing with some aspects of Farrugia’s bill, having a 16-year-old visit the doctor without the parents’ consent or knowledge frightened him somewhat.

A doctor's dilemma

“And I would find it difficult, as a doctor, diagnosing a 16-year-old with bulimia, anorexia, bullying or some other condition, without having the right to let the parents know,” he said.

The bill, Gonzi said, proposed that teens who were sufficiently mature would be allowed to visit a doctor without the parents’ consent. And yet, he wondered, where would they get the money for the doctor’s visit from?

Deo Debattista said that teens could already visit places like the GU Clinic, without the parents’ knowledge or consent, for private consultation on sex and contraception and diagnosis of sexually-transmitted diseases.

The amendments being discussed was merely extending this practice across the medical spectrum, he said.

Clyde Puli confirmed the opposition’s intention to vote in favour of the bill but expressed sympathy with Gonzi’s concerns on excluding parents out of the equation.

He said he also wondered where one  would draw the line, establishing the age where youths can be considered adults.

Anthony Agius Decelis said the bill not sought to further empower tens, but also laid down specific rights they would be granted.

“Youths are not just a number that we care about only at election time,” he said. “This is proof that this government values what youths feel and go through.”

Nationalist Peter Micallef said that the bill would help instil a sense of responsibility in teens, in being made aware of the responsibility that the proposals will grant them.

Understanding the condition and the treatment

Etienne Grech said that, once enacted, the bill did not preclude the teens from seeking the advice of parents or other close friends, but only granted them responsibility to make decisions on their own.

He asked whether this bill would also grant 16- and 17-year-olds to buy any medicine prescribed to them by their doctor.

Opposition whip David Agius said it was ironic that Health Minister Chris Fearne – who had at the beginning of the sitting criticesed another MP for not being present during question time on a particular day – been absent from the Chamber through the entire debate on this bill, which was directly linked to his responsibilities.

Opposition spokesperson Claudette Buttigieg said she had not been aware that doctors who agreed to see patients under 18 years alone, were in fact breaking the law.

She said she believed that teens who chose to visit the doctor without their parents’ knowledge or consent, were the exception to the rule, but insisted Parliament should also take that minority into consideration.

Buttigieg said that the bill was, in a way, mirroring and complementing the Mental Health Act, which stipulated that teens from the age of 14 could seek psychiatric treatment even if the parents refused to grant their consent.

She noted that doctors would still have the right to refuse to see any patients under 18, if they felt uncomfortable being alone with patients of that age.

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