The Protection of Children's Right to Self-Determination in South African Law with Specific Reference to Medical Treatment and Operations
The Children's Act 38 of 2005 provides that children over the age of 12 years can consent to their own medical treatment or that of their children, provided they are of sufficient maturity and have the mental capacity to understand the benefits, risks, social and other implications of the treatment (section 129(2)). The predecessor of the Children's Act set the age at which children could consent to medical treatment at 14 years, and no maturity assessment was required (Child Care Act 74 of 1983 section 39(4)). Children over the age of 12 years can consent to the performance of surgical operations on themselves or their children, provided that they have the level of maturity described above and they are duly assisted by their parents or guardians (Children's Act section 129(3)). Before the Children's Act came into operation, the Child Care Act allowed children over the age of 18 to consent to their own operations (section 39(4)). Neither a maturity assessment nor parental assistance was required. (Note that when the Child Care Act was in operation the majority age was still 21 years.) In this article the question is considered if the relaxation of the limitations on children's capacity to consent to medical treatment and surgical operations in the Children's Act recognises the right of children to make independent decisions without the assistance of their parents or guardians or other substitute decision-makers. Firstly the article investigates the theoretical foundations of the protection of children's rights, particularly their autonomy rights. Secondly the meaning of the concept "competence" in medical decision- making and the related concept of "informed consent" are discussed. Thirdly some developmental and neuroscientific research on children's decision-making capacities and how they influence children's competence to give consent valid in law are highlighted. Fourthly possible legal foundations for the protection of children's right to self-determination in medical decision-making are sought in the Constitution and international and regional human rights treaties. Finally the relevant provisions of the Children's Act are examined in order to ascertain whether children's right to self-determination is sufficiently protected in South African law.
Keywords: Children's autonomy; children's right to self-determination; children's competence; adolescent capacity; informed consent; consent to medical treatment by children; consent to surgical operations by children.