A child's right to die

May 24, 1994

In recent days, the deaths of two former occupants of the White House, Richard Nixon and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, have brought renewed attention to the rights of Americans to forgo life-prolonging medical treatment. In both these cases, doctors followed the clearly expressed wishes of adult patients who wanted to be able to die in peace, once it was determined that nothing could reverse the course of their illnesses.

Where children are concerned, however, the question arouses more controversy. Earlier this month, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued an opinion that did not please school officials. Addressing the case of a terminally ill child who is still well enough to attend school, the opinion supports the right of parents to make the same decisions for their children that adults can make in their own behalf, and to expect school officials to adhere to those decisions. The opinion finds that if the child suffers cardiac arrest at school, schools should honor a formal "do not resuscitate" order filed by the child's parents and doctor.

The opinion may not be easy for school officials to accept, but it is a sound one. Its approach also forces them to deal with the emotional realities confronting a school when a child faces death. How will other students react? What would be the effect on them of letting a child die on the spot?

These worries are not to be taken lightly. But they tend to paint a misleading picture of cases like this. In the event that a terminally ill child suffered cardiac arrest at school, procedures to restart heart and lung functions could easily be more traumatizing to other students than simply doing everything possible to keep the child comfortable. CPR -- cardio-pulmonary resuscitation -- is not a pleasant thing to watch.

When any child is terminally ill, friends and classmates need help in coming to terms with the fact that death is an inevitable part of life -- sometimes, sadly enough, even a child's life. It is reasonable to believe that the parents of a terminally ill child are better able to determine how to care for that child than are school officials, and that such a child should be able to attend school as long as possible without the threat of intrusive, even violent intervention to preserve life at all costs.

Mr. Curran's opinion is thought to be the nation's first legal ruling in the debate over whether schools should be required to comply with family requests to let terminally ill children die. It wisely opts to preserve the rights of families to make these hard decisions, and to expect the support of school officials in carrying them out.

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