Uncommon last wish of a terminally ill teenager

A terminally ill boy had his dying wish granted in Australia on December 2001, but ethicists are at odds over whether it was the right thing to do.

The wish was not for a trip to Disneyland or to meet a famous sports star. Instead, the 15-year-old wanted to lose his virginity before he died of cancer. The boy, who remains anonymous but was called Jack by the Australian media, did not want his parents to know about his request. Because of his many years spent in the hospital, he had no girlfriend or female friends.

Jack died, but not before having his last wish granted. Without the knowledge of his parents or hospital staff, friends arranged an encounter with a prostitute outside of hospital premises. All precautions were taken, and the organizers made sure the act was fully consensual.

The issue has sparked fierce debate over the legal and ethical implications of granting the boy’s request. By law, Jack was still a child, and the woman involved could in theory face charges for having sex with a minor. The debate was sparked by the hospital’s child psychologist, who wrote a letter to “Life Matters,” a radio show in which academics debate ethical and moral dilemmas. The scenario was presented in the abstract, with no details about the boy’s identity.

“He had been sick for quite a long period, and his schooling was very disrupted, so he hadn’t had many opportunities to acquire and retain friends, and his access to young women was pretty poor,” the psychologist said in an interview with Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “But he was very interested in young women and was experiencing that surge of testosterone that teenage boys have.” Hospital staff initially wanted to pool donations to pay for a prostitute, but the ethical and legal implications prevented them from doing so. The psychologist presented members of the clergy with the dilemma and found no clear answer. “It really polarized them,” he said. “About half said, ‘What’s your problem?’ And the other half said [it] demeans women and reduces the sexual act to being just a physical one.”

Dr. Stephen Leeder, Dean of Medicine at the University of Sydney and a “Life Matters” panelist, said the issue was a difficult one. “I pointed out that public hospitals operated under the expectation that they would abide by state law,” he said. “While various things doubtless are done that are at the edge of that, it’s important the public has confidence that the law will be followed.” Jack’s psychologist, who works with children in palliative care, said the desire was driven in part by a need for basic human contact. “In a child dying over a long period of time, there is often a condition we call ‘skin hunger,'” he said. The terminally ill child yearns for non-clinical contact because “mostly when people touch them, it’s to do something unpleasant, something that might hurt.” Leeder called the diagnosis “improbable.”

Judy Lumby, the show’s other panelist and the Executive Director of the New South Wales College of Nursing, argued that the details as presented made it abundantly clear the boy’s wish ought to be granted. “I said that I would try my darndest as a nurse to do whatever I could to make sure his wish came true,” she said. “I just think we are so archaic in the way we treat people in institutions. Certainly, if any of my three daughters were dying, I’d do whatever I could, and I’m sure that you would, too.”

Source Credits: Benjamin Errett of Chicago Sun Times

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