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Body Modification and Adolescent Decision Making: Proceed with Caution

29 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 7 Sep 2012

Alicia R. Ouellette

Albany Law School

Date Written: July 14, 2012


This Article examines the phenomenon of body modification among adolescents from a legal perspective. In particular, it culls together the law of body modification and positions it generally within the law regarding adolescent decision-making. It then briefly reviews the ways in which the law of adolescents is shaped both by our understanding of the parent-child relationship and the available scientific evidence concerning brain development and executive function. The essay then considers how the law’s principal approach to body modification in adolescents — a requirement of parental consent — works for and against adolescents in practice. The essay argues that although the scientific research into the development of the adolescent brain and executive functioning support increased decision-making authority for adolescents with respect to most health care, cosmetic body modification is different. Requirements for parental consent for body modification are an appropriate means of protecting adolescents from the limitations of their cognitive function. However, laws that give parents ultimate control over adolescent bodies fail to respect the developing autonomy and liberty interests of teens. Neither parental consent alone nor a parent’s veto should be the sole determinant of whether an adolescent’s body is cosmetically modified through medical intervention. Modification should take place, with parental consent, only when the adolescent has made a persistent, unambiguous, and informed choice, and, without parental consent, in the rare case in which medical professionals agree with a determined adolescent that body modification is urgent to prevent psychological or other harm.

Suggested Citation

Ouellette, Alicia R., Body Modification and Adolescent Decision Making: Proceed with Caution (July 14, 2012). Journal of Health Care Law & Policy, Vol. 15, p. 101, 2012; Albany Law School Research Paper No. 2 of 2012-2013. Available at SSRN:

Alicia R. Ouellette (Contact Author)

Albany Law School ( email )

80 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, NY 12208
United States

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