Shall it be sweet 16, or a mature 18?
Most parents expect –– as they should –– to be involved in every aspect of their children’s lives, particularly when those children are minors. Making health care decisions is no exception.
In fact, the type and level of health care a mother or father seeks or allows for a child is one of the biggest decisions they will make before their offspring reach adulthood and take charge of their own well-being. It is for this reason that the perennial call for the rationalization of the age of consent and the age at which a child may seek medical attention without parental consent keeps triggering heated discussion.
The age of consent in Barbados is 16, yet under the Minors Act 1974, an individual is only considered an adult at the age of 18.
Over the weekend, UNICEF Children’s Champion Faith Marshall-Harris revived the discussion on that legal anomaly when she announced that a proposal would soon go before Cabinet to enact legislation giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to access medical help without having to get their parents’ permission. That initiative has the support of incoming executive director of the Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA), Juliette Bynoe-Sutherland, who has said that while many parents are adequately addressing issues of teen sexuality and are prepared to deal with their children’s needs, others are not.
Her predecessor George Griffith had also been very vocal about the need for change since, as he said time and time again, the existing situation created “severe problems for young people and their health”.
There are many who strongly oppose this view, insisting that granting minors access to confidential medical care services is tantamount to condoning sexual activity. The BFPA head herself also acknowledged that some parents would be concerned that a change in policy would limit their awareness of their children’s behaviour.
Ideally, a child should feel comfortable enough to approach a parent with concerns about their health or any other important issue. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and not all teens and parents work in partnership on decisions that could have a lifelong impact; and fear of disclosure prevents some minors from seeking needed medical help.
While parents do expect to have the last say, it may at times be more important for a minor to have access to confidential medical services than to require that parents be informed. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that young people not coming forward for health care could be a matter of life or death. It cannot be disputed that some minors who are sexually active and find themselves infected with a sexually transmitted disease or infection, or even pregnant, may avoid seeking care if it is required that they involve their parents.
If a 16-year-old or 17-year-old can legally consent to sexual intercourse –– presumably without a parent even being aware of their deed –– should they not be able to seek preventative care or medical attention for the consequences of that sexual activity without their parents’ or guardians’ consent?
There is the argument that the right of parents to make health care decisions on their children’s behalf presumes –– and rightfully so in many cases –– that before reaching the age of 18, many young people lack the experience and judgement to make fully informed decisions. This then begs the question: should Barbados be lowering the age at which a minor may access medical care without parental consent to 16, or should consideration instead be given to increasing the age of consent to 18?
The issue at hand should not be reduced to a mere intellectual or moral debate. Rather it requires serious thought to protect our youth from irreversible decisions that could threaten their future.