The recent Supreme Court of Canada case of A.C. v. Director of Child and Family Services of Manitoba confirmed the overriding of a 14 year old’s religious refusal of medical treatment. A.C., the teenager in the case, argued that she had been wrongly denied the respect she would have been given had she been 16. The judgment gives a nod to A.C.’s faith, imagines the possibility that someone her age might be competent to make her own medical decisions, and, in the end, underlines the need to protect young people from the grave consequences of their own decisions. As a story that illustrates the complexities of adolescent autonomy, it’s not bad. But, for a full picture of the turbulence of teenage life and its characteristic mix of real needs and authentic strength, a more promising place to look is the fictional world of Harry Potter. As the sixth story – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – opens in movie theatres this month, we are invited to reflect on adolescence in ways not captured by the language of law.
Right from birth, Harry Potter embodies a mix of true vulnerability and impressive power. It is as a student from ages 11 to 17 that Harry develops his abilities and maturity. In precisely the same period, a network of people provides support for his emerging autonomy. Harry’s story reminds us of the truths of growing up, and of the misleading promise of clean cut lines dividing incompetent youth from capable adulthood.
In the Supreme Court’s story, fourteen year old A.C. is presumed unable to make serious decisions regarding her health. Those are decisions reserved for later in life, specifically age 16 according to the law in A.C.’s home province of Manitoba. But, just as Harry Potter at 14 competes in the Triwizard Tournament, even if officially deemed too young to do so, so too has A.C. had maturity thrust upon her. She is aware of the grave risk to her life caused by her medical condition, and turns to faith for guidance and direction. Neither adolescent at 14 is ‘of age’, but both have voice, beliefs, desires, and capacities. For both teenagers, this is a time of alternating and coexisting vulnerability and confidence. And it is a time of individual dignity. Professor Dumbledore says to Harry, “You have shouldered a grown wizard’s burden and found yourself equal to it”. As A.C. shoulders her own adult burden, her voice deserves attention, and her expressed wishes and beliefs deserve appropriate consideration.
Lines drawn on the basis of age are both ubiquitous and mythical. They necessarily imagine “typical teenagers” at a given age and create rules based on the attached assumptions. Yet, as Harry indicates, not all teenagers are typical. It is in the crucible of crisis that an adolescent like A.C. emerges. Again, in the words of Dumbledore, “Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young…”. Trying to help young people avoid mistakes with serious consequences is part of the responsibility of members of an adolescent’s support network. But J.K. Rowling’s stories show us that trampling on a young person’s expression of desire in the name of protection fails to ensure respect for dignity.
In the sixth book and movie, Harry Potter takes lessons in “apparition”, the adult skill of invisibly moving from one place to another. Apparition requires sustained individual focus on “Destination, Determination and Deliberation”, and its mastery takes much repetition and practice. Also in the sixth movie, Harry is taught the significance of the human soul and the horrific consequences of its destruction. Thus, at the same time that he prepares for adulthood by focusing on where he wants to go, Harry realizes that integrity of body and soul are crucial for getting there. The fictional story of Harry Potter, then, seems ideal for understanding the real story of A.C., a young person of faith considering the spiritual and physical consequences of her choices. All of us, including the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, may want to stand in line for a movie ticket.