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Do You Have The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Maybe you don't like needles. Maybe you don't want to spend the last months of your life undergoing chemotherapy.

It's your body, but do you have the right to refuse medical treatment?

Right to Choose, Right to Refuse?

You have a right to informed consent. Essentially, doctors must tell you all the potential benefits, risks, and alternative methods of any medical procedure and get your consent before proceeding.

Entwined with the right to informed consent is the right to refuse. For most non-life threatening treatments you have a right to refuse medical treatment.

Most states have statutes that codify your right to consent and refuse. For example, in California, Health & Safety Code section 1262.6(a)(3) states, "Each hospital shall provide each patient ... written information regarding the right's to ... participate actively in decisions regarding medical care. To the extent permitted by law, participation shall include the right to refuse treatment."

Under federal law, the Patient Self-Determination Act (PSDA) guarantees the right to refuse life sustaining treatment at the end of life.

Government Intervention

However, this right is not always absolute. There are exceptions for when you are not in a condition to consent or refuse.

During medical emergencies when you are not conscious to consent, doctors are allowed to provide life saving treatment without your consent.

In some cases, courts have found that a person's right to refuse must be balanced with the state's interest in preserving life. In the case of Cruzan v. Harmon, the court wrote, "Neither the right to refuse treatment nor the right to privacy are absolute; each must be balanced against the state's interests to the contrary."


While the state's interference in personal medical choices is rare, it happens most often in the case of children.

Children are, generally, deemed incompetent to make their own medical decisions. Parents usually have the right to make medical decisions for their children. However, when refusing medical treatment means the death of a child, the state's interest in preserving life usually overrides the parents' rights.

In the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old boy, the court overruled his parents' decision to take him off of chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. In another case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered a 17-year-old girl to undergo chemotherapy treatment against her choice.

Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney

In case you are ever incapacitated and unable to make a choice, you can ensure that your wishes will be followed by making a living will and a durable power of attorney.

A living will sets out how you want to be cared for in case of emergency. You can specify which treatments you do want and which you don't want.

A durable power of attorney gives another person the power to make medical decisions for you when you are unable to. A durable power of attorney is used to fill gaps in your living will.

If you have a living will and a durable power of attorney, the government usually can't step in and overrule your wishes.

If you think your right to refuse medical treatment is being violated, an experienced civil rights attorney may be able to help.

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