DOI: 10.1177/14777509231188817 ISSN: 1477-7509

The child's right to bodily integrity and autonomy: A conceptual analysis

Jonathan Pugh
  • Philosophy
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)

It is widely accepted that children enjoy some form of a right to bodily integrity. However, there is little agreement about the precise nature and scope of this right. This paper offers a conceptual analysis of the child's right to bodily integrity, in order to further elucidate the relationship between the child's right to bodily integrity and considerations of autonomy. Following a discussion of Leif Wenar's work on the structure and justification of rights, I first explain how the adult's right to bodily integrity can be distilled into separate elements that may plausibly be justified by different moral considerations. In particular, I claim that this analysis suggests that whilst the adult's right to bodily integrity is not wholly reducible to bodily autonomy, autonomy nonetheless remains entwined with our understanding of this right in a number of ways. On the basis of this discussion, I go on to outline three important complexities that arise when we consider the child's right to bodily integrity, before particularly focusing on the question of how third parties should determine whether or not to perform a physical interference upon a child who lacks decision-making capacity. Here, I raise some objections to Earp and Mazor's recent attempts to answer this question, before briefly defending an ‘autonomy-based interests’ account of permissible interference, an account that shares in what I take to be the spirit, if not the precise letter, of these earlier views.