Constitutional Law

One Day After Mont. Judge Orders Woman to Have Hysterectomy for Cancer, Top Court Calls a Halt


Under legal standards for informed consent, an adult who is mentally competent generally has a constitutional right to refuse medical treatment, even treatment that would be life-saving.

But after being told by a psychiatrist and a doctor that an unidentified woman’s “religious delusions” interfered with her ability to understand the risks of refusing lifesaving cancer treatment, a Montana judge last week ordered that she undergo a hysterectomy two days later, according to the Associated Press and the Missoulian.

The next day, the public defender’s office filed an emergency appeal of the Missoula County District Court order, arguing that “tomorrow’s impending involuntary removal of L.K.’s reproductive organs both establishes that the district court is proceeding under a mistake of law and is causing a gross injustice [that] involves constitutional dignity and religious freedom issues of statewide importance.”

The state supreme court then immediately stayed the court order requiring the hysterectomy and provided for the emergency appeal to proceed.

“Normally, we don’t force treatment on adults. Competent adults can refuse even lifesaving treatments on religious terms,” Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics tells the Missoulian. “The challenge is to establish that they truly are incompetent and that they really do comprehend the risk posed to their life.”

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