Age of Consent and Parental Rights

Today’s Burning Question: I know 16 is the age of medical consent in Rhode Island.  Does that mean that technically we cannot discuss the medical condition of a 17 year old with his parents without his consent?

Answer: I received this question last week and while it is not an issue everywhere, it can be an issue in any state where the age of consent for medical treatment is lower than the age of majority.

Ordinarily, a minor is considered to be legally “incompetent” and thus unable to consent to medical treatment as a matter of law. As a result, consent from a parent (either parent) or a legal guardian is required for medical treatment. RI has a statute that allows children as young as 16 to consent to medical treatment. The statute reads as follows:

§ 23-4.6-1  Consent to medical and surgical care. – Any person of the age of sixteen (16) or over or married may consent to routine emergency medical or surgical care. A minor parent may consent to treatment of his or her child.

An interesting point is that the statute does not terminate the right of a parent of a 16-17 year old to consent, it just extends that right to the child. Thus a 16-17 year old in need of medical attention may consent, but so may either parent or a guardian.  At 18 the child becomes an adult by law. Here is the age of majority law in RI

§ 15-12-1  Persons of full age. – (a) Notwithstanding any general or public law or provision of the common law to the contrary, all persons who have attained the age of eighteen (18) years shall be deemed to be persons of full legal age.

   (b) These persons shall have all the duties and obligations, rights, and privileges imposed or granted by law upon those persons who have previously attained the age of twenty-one (21) years.

Thus, at age 18, the parents technically are no longer able to consent for their child.

So how does all of this relate to the question?

While the 17 year old patient has the legal right to consent, that right is not an exclusive right… and does not become an exclusive right until he reaches age 18. While there are no cases on point, the same reasoning would permit the parents of the 17 year old to have a legal right to discuss their child’s medical condition with a medical provider. As parents of a minor they have a non-exclusive right to that medical  information until the child reaches age 18.

Any other thoughts out there on this topic? Found a lot of interesting cases researching this issue, just none on point!!!

Oh – one more thing – if a child is emancipated then the parental right to consent and discuss the medical condition with a provider would end the same as if the child turned 18.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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