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Robert Leonard ′08

Picture this: you’re twelve years old, and you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia. You’ve been in and out of the hospital for months undergoing chemotherapy, but every time the doctor assures you the cancer has gone into remission, it comes back.

Another doctor says there’s a recently developed method left to try—it’s new, it’s controversial, and there’s only a 40% chance it will work. You say no—the treatment hurts, you can’t remember the last time you saw your friends and you’re just tired. But your parents say yes. Who should have the final say: the patient suffering from the disease or the parents concerned about their child?

Through my internship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I’ve been researching this type of scenario for the last two years. The issue is known as assent in regard to minors—when parents or guardians give consent for a medical procedure on behalf of their child. But I’ve focused on situations where the child’s wishes don’t coincide with the parents’.

Who should the doctor listen to? According to federal law, if the patient is under 18, the decision rests with the parent or guardian. But do we have the right to decide what should and shouldn’t be done to a child’s body, solely on the basis of age?

I became involved with the St. Jude Summer Plus Program following a recommendation by Professor Brendan O’Sullivan. He learned about this unique position from St. Jude faculty member and Rhodes alum Dr. Raymond C. Barfield, who wanted students to experience research outside the usual laboratory and lecture hall. What makes my position so unique? I’m not a science major.

Like Dr. Barfield, I’m a Philosophy major who’s interested in practical philosophy—specifically, medical ethics. Professor Pat Shade, Dr. Barfield, Dr. Justin Baker and I comprise a research team that has been studying the subordination of minors in the decision-making process with the hope of publishing a series of essays that will instigate a change in how society honors the judgments of children. Later this year, I’ll present our findings at a conference for members of the scientific field.

I owe all my success to Professors O’Sullivan and Pat Shade of the Rhodes Philosophy department. Since my freshman year, I’ve taken a class every semester from Professor Shade because he is by far one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. If you write a six-page paper, he’ll write six pages of comments and criticisms in return. His devotion inspires me to teach someday. And of course, Professor O’Sullivan nominated me for the St. Jude position, which has proven to be the hallmark of my time at Rhodes.

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