As parents, we expect to be told everything about our infants when we take them to the doctor. The same with our toddlers. By the time they get to their teens, it gets a little more complicated. Should parents have the right to know about all about their under 16-year-old’s healthcare?
That issue was the subject of a recent petition to Parliament. It asked:
That the Parliament pass legislation providing that a parent of a woman under the age of 16 years has the right to know if that woman has a pregnancy confirmed before she is referred for any resulting medical procedure, and that any consent sought for the medical procedure be fully informed as to procedure, possible repercussions, and after-effects.
The Select Committee that considered that petition has just made its report. You can read it here.
We were asked to make a contribution to the debate and we made a submission to the Select Committee. You can find our submission here. In it, we set out how the law currently works and how the Privacy Act, in particular, applies.
Medical information is universally understood to be sensitive information. Reproductive health information is generally accepted as being particularly so.
The Privacy Act’s Health Information Privacy Code says a health agency is entitled to disclose information to a parent or representative if a patient is unable to consent. If a young person objects or specifically requests privacy, it is open to the health agency to make an assessment of the young person’s ability to make that request. A test called ‘Gillick competence’ is used by doctors to evaluate a patient’s competency in this regard.
If a young person, a minor, wants to keep her request for reproductive health advice or services secret from her parents, a health agency is not automatically required to tell her parents. Under the Privacy Act, anyone has the right to protect the privacy of their personal information.
Other laws also need to be considered. In general, doctors cannot treat any person without obtaining their informed consent. Anyone over the age of 16 can refuse or consent to medical treatment but legislation is silent on the consent of minors. Section 22F of the Health Act permits a parent or representative of a child to request information about that child. But section 22F also says a doctor must still consider whether it could be contrary to a minor’s interests to disclose the information.
Our submission to the Justice and Electoral Committee says if a girl, who has been found to be mentally competent, is able to give or refuse consent for a termination, she also has the right to keep their personal medical information private from her parents. Current privacy laws protect a minor’s right to privacy while also giving an appropriate level of discretion to doctors when faced with whether or not to disclose their personal information.
Such an approach is consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognises that children and young people have legal and social rights when seeking consent to healthcare.
Image credit: Teenagers by Petra Bensted - via Flickr