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Harm is all you need? Best interests and disputes about parental decision-making
  1. Giles Birchley
  1. Correspondence to Giles Birchley, Centre for Ethics in Medicine, University of Bristol, Canygne Hall, 39 Whatley Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 2PS, UK; giles.birchley{at}


A growing number of bioethics papers endorse the harm threshold when judging whether to override parental decisions. Among other claims, these papers argue that the harm threshold is easily understood by lay and professional audiences and correctly conforms to societal expectations of parents in regard to their children. English law contains a harm threshold which mediates the use of the best interests test in cases where a child may be removed from her parents. Using Diekema's seminal paper as an example, this paper explores the proposed workings of the harm threshold. I use examples from the practical use of the harm threshold in English law to argue that the harm threshold is an inadequate answer to the indeterminacy of the best interests test. I detail two criticisms: First, the harm standard has evaluative overtones and judges are loath to employ it where parental behaviour is misguided but they wish to treat parents sympathetically. Thus, by focusing only on ‘substandard’ parenting, harm is problematic where the parental attempts to benefit their child are misguided or wrong, such as in disputes about withdrawal of medical treatment. Second, when harm is used in genuine dilemmas, court judgments offer different answers to similar cases. This level of indeterminacy suggests that, in practice, the operation of the harm threshold would be indistinguishable from best interests. Since indeterminacy appears to be the greatest problem in elucidating what is best, bioethicists should concentrate on discovering the values that inform best interests.

  • Decision-making
  • Paediatrics
  • Newborns and Minors
  • Law
  • Minors/Parental Consent

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