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Religion influencing medical decisions made for children
  1. Robert Wheeler
  1. Paediatric Surgery, University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Southampton SO16 6YD, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Robert Wheeler, Paediatric Surgery, University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Southampton SO16 6YD, UK; robert.wheeler{at}

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Courts in England pass no judgement on but give considerable weight to families’ religious beliefs, provided they are legally and socially acceptable. However, the child’s interests remain paramount in all aspects of their upbringing, including religious matters.

How has this been reflected in clinical practice during the last 30 years?1

In Re R (A Minor, Residence, Religion), a case decided soon after the Children Act 1989 came into force, a judge, weighing religious influences when deciding where a child should live, provided guidance: ‘It is no part of the court’s function to comment upon the tenets, doctrines or rules of any particular section of society… (their) impact …upon a child’s future welfare must be one of the relevant circumstances to be taken into account by the court…’. This translates easily into clinical practice, in terms of the respect that should be shown to religious traditions and practices, incorporating them within an overall treatment strategy. Dealing with a 16-month-old girl2 with type I spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) who was conscious and able to recognise her parents but required ventilatory support, a judge heard that life-sustaining treatment would delay death without significantly alleviating her suffering. Her orthodox Jewish parents believed that their religion did not permit them to contemplate a course of action that would indirectly shorten her life. The court held that withdrawal was in the child’s best interests, and that it could not direct the doctors to provide treatment unwillingly. The judge acknowledged the desperate situation the parents found themselves in, but did not address the religious foundation for their refusal of consent to withdraw treatment.

In Re J (Child’s Religious Upbringing & Circumcision), 5, whose father …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.