A girl of 14 has a termination but does not want her parents to be told. Before staff are happy to discharge her she asks to leave the hospital as her parents are expecting her home. Can the hospital call her parents?
The Abortion Act 1967, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, does not require any minimum age for a woman to consent to the termination. An adult (someone over 18) has the right to consent. If the woman is 16 or 17 then there is a statutory right to consent under the Family Law Reform Act 1969. For those over 16, there is
a presumption of mental competence under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.
In this situation the girl is 14. The House of Lords held, in the Gillick case of 1985, that if a young person under 16 had the necessary maturity to understand the procedure and the risks involved, then she had the right to give consent. Sue Axon, from Manchester, challenged this principle in 2006 when she found out her daughter, who was under 16, was going to have a termination without her knowledge. However, the Court of Appeal applied the Gillick principle and she lost.
Provided the patient has been assessed as mentally competent, she has the capacity to give consent. There is no legal requirement for parental consent to be obtained or even to inform the parents of what is taking place. However, here the patient wants to discharge herself. Therefore a risk assessment has to be carried out on the dangers of letting her leave contrary to medical advice and, what steps, if any, should be carried out to ensure that she would be reasonably safe.
For example, is there a danger that she could haemorrhage?
There are duties under the Children Act 1989 to ensure the girl is safe. The patient’s request not to phone her home should be respected if at all possible. However, since she is only 14, staff have a duty to take reasonable precautions to ensure her safety.
To prevent this kind of situation, it is vital that patients should be advised, at the time the termination is planned, that an overnight stay might be necessary.
Bridgit Dimond, MA, LLB, DSA, AHSA, is barrister-at-law and emeritus professor, University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd
Want to read more of Dilemma? Just click on the 'more by this author' link at the top of the page