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How Family Guy tackled a very real legal issue

January 31, 2012

I watched the most recent episode of Family Guy last night and as well as being very funny it raised the issue of Christian Scientists and other denominations who don’t believe in many forms of modern medicine. I’ve got to say right off the bat that I’m not religious, I’m not trying to advocate any sort of religious viewpoint, I’m just trying to write objectively.

When I was studying law I read a few cases on Jehovah’s witnesses who refused surgery and blood transfusions because it went against their religious beliefs and inevitably, they all died when they could have possibly been saved. One particular case involved a man who stabbed a female  Jehovah’s witness. The woman then died as she refused life-saving treatment. The defendant in the case argued that he shouldn’t be convicted of murder. He stated that his actions would not have led to death if not for the decision to withhold medical treatment.This argument was flatly rejected by the UK Courts, and rightly so.

Nobody should get off with murder simply because they feel the religious beliefs of a certain individual are crazy and irresponsible. It may be that the views of the individual are irresponsible but it comes down to simple common sense that is dressed up in a long-standing principle of law, the ‘thin skull’ principle. When you choose to attack someone, you take the risk that they may have, for example, a thin skull or in this case a religious belief that prevents them from surviving and that your attack will kill them even though it wouldn’t kill the average man. You will be punished for the murder irregardless. Ignorance is not a defence.

What is however very tragic is that ignorance is a defence in many societies when it comes to parents and their children. If you are a Christian Scientist or a Scientologist or a Jehovah’s witness and you make medical decisions on behalf of your children that are deemed by contemporary society to be irresponsible should you be punished?

For me what it comes down to is that every citizen is a citizen of the state, with rights that ought to be protected by the state. An adult has the right to choose whether or not they refuse treatment, a child does not have the mental capacity to do so yet. People in this vulnerable position need the state to step in and make the right decision for them. In reality, often parents will not be found culpable by the courts and the state, in the form of the legal system, will have failed to step in after the death of a child. This is a double failure for the state who should have first stepped in, in the form of child services, when the medical treatment was refused and again to punish the parents.

Family Guy made an excellent argument. In the episode a family refused to have their child treated for cancer as they planned to pray the disease away, Lois Griffin responded with the following:

“I know you don’t believe in modern medicine, but you do believe in the power of prayer. And through the years when there was disease or infection people of good faith would pray to God for a cure. Well then isn’t it possible that penicillin, vaccines and antibiotics are all actually answered prayers? And isn’t it possible that the amazing men and woman of medicine who brought about these miracles could be the instruments of God’s answers to our prayers? It’s wrong for you to ignore what very well could be the Lord’s will, what’s the point of praying to God if you’re just going to wipe your butt with his answers?”

We should all embrace Lois Griffin’s message. Thanks Seth MacFarlane.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 2:10 am

    I enjoy these kind of philosophical legal questions. I considered going to law school when I was under the impression lawyers spent a lot of time sitting around discussing legal philosophy.

    I still wonder about the case of the man stabbing the Jehovah’s Witness and her dying because she refused medical treatment. I’m not sure he should be guilty of murder if she chose to elevate the severity of the crime. If someone starts a small fire in your home and you refuse to use a fire extinguisher to put it out, can the person be liable for your whole house?

    • February 2, 2012 3:25 am

      Thanks a lot for giving me my first ever comment. Actually loads of my law degree was spent discussing legal philosophy but I think I just got lucky going to a University that focuses on it more than most.

      Great question by the way and one that has definitely got me thinking but I’m pretty sure I’ve got a legally correct answer for you, whether or not it is morally correct is up for debate!
      In UK criminal law there is no duty for the victim to mitigate their situation, they don’t have to act reasonably, they don’t have to do anything.

      There’s another really interesting case that brilliantly illustrates the extent of the principle. A defendant attacked a man with a knife and 2 days later the victim actually reopened the wounds, left a suicide note and died. The UK Courts held that the most important issue was whether the stab wound was a significant cause of the death and it wasn’t important that the recurrence of the bleeding was deliberately caused by the victim.

      It’s also important to remember that labels like murder and manslaughter only have a limited effect in the UK. As there is no capital punishment the only difference between the two is that if you are convicted if murder you HAVE to get a sentence of at least 14 years whereas if you are convicted of manslaughter then the length of your sentence is up to the judge.

      Your case is a bit different but I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that the person would NOT be liable to pay damages for the whole house. There’s a really important distinction to be made between the criminal case and the civil case against him.

      In English civil law, unlike criminal law the victim is under a duty to mitigate his loss. The general principle is that a claimant may not claim damages for his loss that would have been avoidable by reasonable steps on his part. The fact the guy didn’t use a fire extinguisher or call 999/911 means he acted unreasonably and his claim would fail.

  2. February 3, 2012 4:16 am

    Okay. I lied. I couldn’t wait to read it, so I did. Where do I start? As you may know since you’ve visited my blog, I am a lawyer. A recovery attorney, really. I’m not currently practicing, but the philosophical side of the law is sooooo interesting. Upping my interest in your post is the fact that my step-mother was raised Jehovah’s Witness. Even though she was disfellowshipped and doesn’t practice, she still insists that she would never have a blood transfusion if she needed one. So, for me, your post brings up a number of issues.

    First, as a person who loves her step-mother (yes, that does happen on occasion), I would have to completely ignore her wishes if she needed a blood transfusion and the decision somehow landed in my lap. She can hate me later when she’s alive. But can she sue me? Hmmm. I suspect my father would also ignore her wishes, but she’s got to live with him, so I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t sue him.

    Second, does the fact that a religious belief system is involved change our perspective on this issue? Though I haven’t followed all the most recent court cases, I know of several situations in which parents have been charged with child neglect and endangerment in the U.S. because they made decisions regarding their children that impacted their kids health and welfare – and those decisions were based on religious or lifestyle belief systems (i.e. a vegan family was arrested when their child died, supposedly of malnutrition). Now granted, there is a difference here because we’re talking about decisions made by one person that impact another – not decisions that impact yourself personally. But is it different if religion is involved or simply a dietary preference? We protect religion (even though some are cults and a little ca-ray-zee), but we don’t protect, say, vegans.

    Third, you mentioned the “thin skull” principle. The only issue I take with this principle is that I see a difference between whether or not you have a condition that naturally hastens your death – something that you can’t control – and a belief system that, ultimately, causes your death. In the U.S. civil legal system, the whole “but for….” argument is used all the time. But for the victim’s refusal to have a blood transfusion, the victim would have lived. Of course, when someone is attacked, there are a myriad of factors that often determine whether they live or die. Are they discovered while still alive? Is medical help available? Can medicine save them? Despite the attacker’s intent, he or she is charged based on the outcome. So if they are lucky enough that their victim survives, they don’t get the electric chair. (I live in Florida – they fry you here. I know, it’s barbaric!) Except, possibly, in these cases. Why is that? Why should a defendant be charged with first degree murder when medical help was available and doctors state under oath that the victim would have survived had he or she accepted medical treatment? Part of me says, “Screw the defendant. You stabbed her. If no one had found her, she would have died and you would have been charged with murder.”

    Another part of me wonders if a victim could use this to their advantage. As a lawyer, I know you’ll humor me here…because that’s how these legal philosophical discussions go. Imagine a husband and wife – both Jehovah’s Witnesses. The husband is a brute and beats his wife. Yes, even JWs do this. I know this for a fact and that’s all I’ll say about it. She’s beat badly. A blood transfusion will save her. She is informed of this. But she decides not to get the transfusion as a form of revenge. A big fuck you to her husband who will now spend his life in prison. Then consider if someone were to do this and they weren’t JW. They just wanted revenge. True, it’s a big cost, but some people don’t care. Some people might even set someone up for this kind of thing. That’s the fodder of the Movie of the Week in this country.

    The only thing not in question here are Lois’ wise words. Ah, thank God for Lois. Some sane commentary in a world in which a homicidal baby stalks his mother, the pet dog is a talking, walking alcoholic and the old man down the street is a pedophile – who makes us laugh. Imagine if Peter had been giving the advice here. No, I can’t look.

    • February 3, 2012 12:22 pm

      Thanks a lot for the comment! I kind of regretted this blog post seconds after I hit publish, I thought it was a bit too controversial and would probably get people incensed, but I was able to placate myself by assuring myself that nobody would ever read it! Loads of good points in your comment, so like you I’m stuck on where to start!

      The ‘could she sue me’ question is interesting. I’ve read about cases where doctors have been sued for administering blood transfusions to Jehovah’s witnesses in disregard of their wishes so in principle she could sue a family member. I think many people would rather be sued for saving a life than allowing someone to die. If she could sue you the courts might find it hard to see any loss that they can award damages for. You could always argue that the your step-mother’s opportunity to spend more time with you, her darling step-daughter, balances it all out.

      On your second point, should religion be protected to a greater degree than lifestyle beliefs? It’s so hard to say, some people are so fervent in their lifestyle beliefs that it becomes almost a religion to them (just look at the hardcore animal rights people that attack labs and the scientists that work in them), why should the belief in a deity make a religious belief more important? I guess for me that the reason religious beliefs should be better protected than lifestyle beliefs is that it’s simply a better reason for acting, i.e. religious parents honestly believe that their actions are saving themselves and their loved ones from an eternity of torture.

      Where vegan (ps, I can’t understand how vegetarians/vegans survive without bacon, it makes up most of my diet) parents and religious parents both feel they are doing the right thing for their kids, the weight of religious repercussions makes it slightly more understandable and excusable for the religious family. I say slightly more understandable because when it comes to a child dying because of faith healing parents I think any level of understanding has passed its limit.

      There are however still a couple of US states that grant immunity to ‘faith healing’ parents even when the child has died. Most states have a more limited immunity where it is only if the child is not harmed that the faith healing parents can be immune from prosecution. Religion is definitely protected more than lifestyle beliefs in the USA but I find it distressing that there are still states that will condone faith healing in cases where the child could have been saved by medicine.

      I was shocked that they fry people in Florida. I had no idea about that when I visited Florida last year, thank God that I kept my Dexter-like urges to a minimum which was tough when so many people were pushing in front of me at Universal Studios. I guess because I’m writing from a UK perspective where there is no capital punishment it’s easier for me to adopt the whole “Screw the defendant. You stabbed her. If no one had found her, she would have died and you would have been charged with murder” attitude.

      In the UK there’s absolutely no duty to mitigate in criminal law, there’s even a case where a man stabbed a person, the victim days later reopened the wounds himself and died. The stabber was convicted of murder because the victim had no duty to mitigate and the courts said ‘but for’ the stabbing the victim would have survived. Because there’s no capital punishment I’m still OK with arguing that the decision is correct, the only difference between a murder charge and a manslaughter charge in the UK is that murder has an automatic minimum of 14 years in jail whereas manslaughter is up to the judge’s discretion. I’d never thought about the case in an American sense where the stabber could be fried because the victim stupidly reopened his wounds.

      I totally agree with the ‘no duty to mitigate’ and ‘but for’ that exists in UK criminal law, but when it comes to the electric chair states I think there’s got to be more focus on the intent of the attacker rather than the outcome. One thing I’d say is, I don’t know the exact boundary between first degree murder and second degree murder in the USA, but would the fact that the attacker didn’t intend to kill mean that he’d escape the electric chair and get second degree murder?

      In your hypothetical case, at least in the UK the motive of the victim wouldn’t be important. If the wife refused the transfusion out of revenge then again the whole ‘but for’ and ‘no duty for a victim to mitigate’ would kick in. Because of the precedent that the ‘reopening wounds’ case has left it doesn’t seem to matter at all how reasonable the victims decision is, if however the victim had set the attacker up then there’s a myriad of defences to murder based on diminished responsibility that the attacker could probably argue to lower his charge to manslaughter.

      Lois is indeed a very wise woman. Peter’s advice would probably have been worth watching as well but I imagine it would somehow end up with him crashing in to Cleveland’s house and Cleveland, still in the bath, slowing falling on to his lawn. PS, I’m glad you wrote Lois’ rather than Lois’s, I know both are correct but the s’ method is just so much better.

  3. February 3, 2012 2:23 pm

    Wow. I feel like I’m in law school all over again and should be heading back to my sad, one room apartment. Later, I’ll go to Wendy’s and splurge on dinner: caesar salad, baked potato with sour cream and a small Frostie. Each used to cost just 99 cents. Then I’ll watch Melrose Place and listen to some Pearl Jam.

    I won’t try to address all of your points – mostly because I’m thinking about going back to sleep – but I do agree that the method in which we judge a defendant and how much emphasis we place on mens rea vs. outcome in deciding a defendant’s fate in a capital state like Florida should be different than in a non-capital state. But it’s really not. Frankly, as you live in a civilized country, you recognize how barbaric and useless a capital system is. With the advent of DNA testing, there is absolutely no viable reason to continue to allow this ridiculous eye for an eye kind of punishment. There have been hundreds of cases in which “guilty” defendants have been proven innocent through DNA evidence alone. The system is flawed, broken and needs to be tossed out with the trash (or thrown in a skip, as you might say).

    BTW, the difference between first degree murder and second degree is premeditation.

    Yawn! This is jolly fun. Chatting with you about this makes me want to head over to England and practice law there. You people sound sane.

  4. February 4, 2012 3:45 pm

    Ok. Now that I’m fully awake, I have a legal, philosophical discussion for you. As I stick with humor on my blog, feel free to post about it if you are so inclined. Anyway, I was watching Revenge of the Nerds (these are my people, after all), one of the nerds – while wearing a Darth Vader mask – had sex with one of the popular, sorority girls on the Moon Walk. Facts of the case:

    a) Popular girl appeared sober and there was no apparent diminished capacity;
    b) Nerd was fully costumed and did not speak;
    c) Popular girl clearly thought the Nerd was someone named “Stan” because she called him that just before agreeing to a sexual encounter;
    d) Nerd did nothing to reveal that he was not Stan;
    e) When the popular girl asked the Nerd to removed his mask, he refused;
    f) There was absolutely no force used;
    g) The popular girl agreed to move forward with the sex despite the masked man’s refusal to removed his head covering so that she could confirm his identity;
    h) The popular girl never said, “No!”

    Question is: did a rape take place here? Fortunately for the Nerd, in the movie, the popular girl leaves Stan for the nerd. But, of course, we know that would never happen in real life. She’d file rape charges, but did one occur? Is she fully or partially responsible for failing to confirm the identity of her sexual partner? Is the Nerd partially responsible for knowingly assuming the identity of Stan (or, at least, failing to divulge his true identity when Popular Girl questioned it)?

    Federal law currently defines rape as : a “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The term “forcible” was removed and, recently, men were included as potential rape victims. Should the word “informed” be included before the word “consent”? I know this may seem like an unlikely scenario, but think about all of the potential rapes that occur during costume parties or on Halloween. Heck, in a recent American Horror Story episode, a human is “raped” by a man dressed completely in a black rubber S&M suit – and she thinks it’s her husband. But it’s not. It’s a ghost. This is a rampant problem and your opinion is needed!

    • February 5, 2012 2:00 am

      The Nerds are most certainly my people too. Part of me feels like I’d fit in if I lived with Sheldon and Leonard from Big Bang Theory but obviously I wouldn’t because they’d start talking about physics and my brain would instantly shut down. I’d be totally up for their various take out food nights though and I do love the cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory so that’d be another boon.

      By the way, I should let you know that I’ve not studied any criminal law in about 4 years so don’t take what I say as definitely right, but I’ll try my best! Obviously the big issue is consent and there’s an English case I remember pretty similar to the facts you outlined.

      In the case a man entered the victim’s bedroom and the woman assumed it was her boyfriend. The man realised her mistake but still had sex with her. To determine whether or not a victim gives consent in English law the question is: ‘would the reasonable person believe the victim is consenting?’. The jury has to consider all the circumstances of the case and any steps the defendant has taken in trying to find out if the victim consents (in your Revenge of the Nerds example the defendant has taken none).

      In the ‘I thought you were my boyfriend’ actual English case the jury convicted the man of rape due to lack of consent. If we compare this to the Revenge of the Nerds one difference is that the popular girl had sex with the nerd even though she couldn’t confirm his identity.

      I think it would all come down to whether at that point it was reasonable for the nerd to believe that she was consenting to have sex with any man regardless of his identity. I feel the jury would convict for rape though because she specifically questioned his identity which makes the nerd’s actions even worse than the actual English case where the man just went along with it. It just doesn’t seem like it was reasonable for the nerd to believe that she was consenting to have sex with him. Maybe her future actions, i.e. that she then starts dating him show that she was consenting to have sex with him, maybe deep down she really knew it was him, maybe she was just in a bit of a whorey mood and wanted absolutely anyone…

      I don’t think there’s any need for the word informed to be included before the word consent in the USA, we don’t have it in the UK and it just means that the courts rely a bit on the common law meaning of consent whereby the victim must actively agree to the sex for there to be consent. That’s why when it comes to bedroom antics I make sure I have a signed and dated copy of what I like to call a ‘sex deed’, with the signing being witnessed by the parents of the girl, it’s the smart thing to do.

      I’m not sure if dry humour comes across on WordPress or whether for a second you thought I actually do that.

      You mention the American Horror Story thing, well there is an entire movie based on being raped by a ghost called The Entity which me and my friends watched a few months ago. It’s terrible but the music in the lead up to the ghost rape is really worth hearing. Also, a friend of mine bought a trashy magazine once and there was a story in it about a woman who regularly had sex with a ghost and claimed it was the best sex she’s ever had. It seems ghostly coitus (Sheldon-inspired usage of coitus) has mixed reviews.

      • February 5, 2012 4:00 am

        I have to agree that what the Nerd did was worse because the Popular Girl did ask him to remove his mask and he refused. Had he done so, she most certainly would have discovered his true identity and refused to engage in coitus. That said, the sex was apparently so good, she changed her mind, left her boyfriend and essentially waived any right to file a rape charge by becoming the Nerd’s girlfriend. In my personal opinion, she was a whore, but even whores can be raped. But I hate sororities and the girl who join them. Did that sound bitchy?

        Yes, dry humor does come across on wordpress…depending on your audience. I’ve given up on worrying about it. If you’re too stupid to get my humor, I don’t care if you’re offended.

    • February 5, 2012 2:26 am

      PS, forgot to say thanks for the comment, it’s forcing me to get the cobwebs out of my brain, and sorry it took so long to get back to you but for some reason I like replying to comments just before I go to sleep…this does not bode well for my career.

      • February 5, 2012 4:01 am

        No worries. But remember, Sheldon Cooper is MY best friend, not yours. Let’s just keep that straight.

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