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Judge Rules Religious Parents’ Disabled Son Can Die

August 1, 2012

Any thoughts on this, readers? Regular readers know my views on issues like this.

Mr Justice Hedley said the one-year-old was comatose after a “catastrophic accident” and it was “unrealistic” to think his condition would ever improve.

He acknowledged that the baby’s mother and father believed “where there’s life there’s hope” and that their faith compelled them to resist switching off their son’s ventilator.

But while praising the parents’ dignity and moving evidence, the judge went on to say that the preservation of life by medics “cannot be everything”.

“No understanding of life is complete unless it has in it a place for death which comes to each and every human with unfailing inevitability. There is unsurprisingly deep in the human psyche a yearning that, when the end comes, it does so as a ‘good death’.

“It is often easier to say what that is not rather than what it is but in this case the contrast is between a death in the arms and presence of parents and a death wired up to machinery and so isolated from all human contact in the course of futile treatment.”

Mr Justice Hedley concluded, having “pondered long and anxiously over this matter all too aware of the gravity of any such decision”, that it was in the baby’s best interests that he could be removed from supported breathing and instead given palliative care.

“My last words must be of profound sympathy to [the parents], whose loss and sorrow can I think only be grasped by those who also have passed through the valley of the shadow of death with their own children.”

In most cases where patients are not expected to recover from brain injuries or disabilities, relatives agree with doctors that life support can be switched off.

But when loved ones disagree, judges can be called upon to decide whether or not their wishes should override those of NHS trusts.

In one High Court case three years ago, the father of a severely disabled baby wanted everything possible done to keep his son alive while his estranged partner supported medics’ view that he had no quality of life. After six days of evidence, the father changed his mind and the baby was allowed to die peacefully.

But in another case, from 2006, a judge ruled that a terminally ill 18-month-old still derived some pleasure from being cared for by his family, and was given the right to be kept alive.

The latest “tragic and difficult” case, decided in the High Court this week, involved the first and only child of a married couple who was born healthy in 2011 but in May suffered a “catastrophic accident” leaving him with irreversible and profound brain damage.

“No suggestion has ever been made that either parent was culpable (whatever the mother in particular may feel) and it is quite clear to me that this was nothing more nor less than a wholly unforeseeable disaster,” the judge said.

The baby, referred to only as X in the judgment, was given “exemplary care” at a children’s hospital, where he is being ventilated as he cannot breathe independently, but staff came to the view that his treatment had become “futile”.

His parents said their son should be given “every chance to improve” and they believed they had seen some signs of hope, while the “tenets of their faith” prevent them giving their consent to life support being withdrawn.

But Mr Justice Hedley quoted a consultant who said the baby “lacks awareness of his surroundings”, “remains comatose”, “shows no interaction or recognition to his parents or carers’ voice” and “doesn’t even shed tears or attempt to smile”.

“In my opinion Baby X no longer has the human instinct and desire to survive,” the doctor said.

The judge said that although the parents had the “instinctive yearning” to keep their son alive, the medical evidence was correct and there was no sign of improvement in his condition.

Following his ruling, the baby’s doctors can decide when to withdraw ventilation.

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