MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court decided Wednesday not to rule on whether minors should be allowed to make their own medical decisions in a case involving a 15-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who refused potentially life-saving blood transfusions.
A court-ordered guardian ultimately approved the transfusions for the girl last year, which led to the lawsuit. But in a 4-3 decision, the court said the case was moot since the order appointing the guardian had expired.
The ruling came just a week after the court upheld the homicide convictions of a mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died. That case marked the first time a Wisconsin court addressed criminal culpability in a prayer treatment case where a child died.
While Wednesday’s case also involved a religious objection to medical treatment, the facts and the legal questions before the court were different.
The underlying issue was whether the girl, who survived and is identified only as Sheila W., should be allowed to make her own medical decisions. The court did not rule on that, deferring instead to the Legislature. Wisconsin has no such “mature minor” law, which allows older minors to make medical decisions.
The court’s punting on that issue led to a blistering dissent authored by Justice Michael Gableman. He was joined by two other fellow conservative justices, Pat Roggensack and Annette Ziegler.
“The Sheila W.s of this state may have to wait a long time before the legislators on white horses arrive,” Gableman wrote. “In the meantime, the actual problem of what to do with minors who refuse life-saving treatment will remain unsolved.”
But the majority, in an unsigned opinion, said the case did not meet the criteria to address the other issues, given that the basis of the appeal was moot.
“In this instance, we deem it unwise to decide such substantial social policy issues with far-ranging implications based on a singular fact situation in a case that is moot,” the majority wrote.
Justice David Prosser, who wrote a separate concurring opinion with the majority, referenced the prayer death case, questioning whether Sheila W.’s parents would have escaped criminal responsibility had she died.
Prosser said the court should defer to the Legislature to enact laws and not “make up the law on its own initiative.”
“Courts are often obligated to enforce law that they may not approve,” Prosser wrote. “They are not obligated to create law that they do not approve. To my mind, it is not sound public policy to force courts to give their imprimatur to a minor’s commitment to martyrdom.”
In early 2012 when she was 15, Sheila W. was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a life-threatening illness in which a person’s immune system attacks the person’s bone marrow. She was treated at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, where her doctor said she would die without blood transfusions.
Sheila and her parents, who are also Jehovah’s Witnesses, refused the blood transfusions based on their religious belief that God prohibits them. The girl told a Dane County circuit judge that a blood transfusion would be “devastating to me mentally and physically” and was the equivalent of a rape.
Dane County filed a petition that led to the appointment of a guardian for the girl, who then approved the blood transfusions, which were administered in March 2012. The guardianship order was not extended even as the court case proceeded, leading to Wednesday’s ruling.
Eve Dorman, the attorney for Dane County who argued the case, said she was pleased with the court’s decision and agrees that the Legislature is the appropriate place to address the various issues the case has raised.
There have not been any proposals in recent years, Dorman said, but she anticipated that the court case may cause some action.
“It’s an issue that really kind of pushes people’s emotional buttons,” she said.
The girl’s attorney, assistant state public defender Shelly Fite, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.