How common are these disputes?
Tragically, for a small number of children who become critically ill each year, medicine reaches its limits. For children like Archie, doctors cannot make them better, and advanced medical techniques and technologies may end up doing more harm than good. Sometimes, all medicine can do is to prolong the inevitable.
It is entirely understandable that loving parents would struggle to understand or accept this news. Many parents might not initially accept the advice of doctors that it may be best to let their child go.
But in the vast majority of cases, with patience, compassion, careful explanation and empathic support, parents and doctors are able to come together to agree on what would be best for a seriously ill child.
In a small number of cases, medical teams may need external help to reach an agreement. For example, they may draw on a clinical ethics committee, or independent mediation, or may seek second opinions from specialists in other hospitals. In a tiny proportion of cases, if parents and doctors cannot agree what would be best, for a child who is stuck on life support in an intensive care unit, the right thing to do is to ask the court to help. The court in the UK has an important role in resolving disagreements about treatment. The court does not side with either doctors or parents. It focuses exclusively on what would be best for the child (the child’s best interests).
by Dominic Wilkinson
In the latest legal hearing, in a long running dispute about treatment for brain-injured 12 year old Archie Battersbee, the Court of Appeal yesterday rejected his family’s request to delay stopping treatment until a UN committee had reviewed his case.
Why all the legal appeals?
The UK legal system allows decisions to be appealed to higher courts. In these cases about treatment for children, it is very rare for higher courts to reach a different decision than the initial judges. In cases, like the Charlie Gard case, or Archie’s case, parents may seek appeals repeatedly in the hope that the court decision will be overturned, or perhaps as a way of buying extra time.
In Archie’s case, it appears that his parents may have run out of options, though it is theoretically possible that they will attempt to appeal again to the Supreme Court, or appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Even if those appeals do go ahead and delay things further, they are extremely unlikely to change the ultimate decision.
Sadly, the underlying situation for Archie remains unchanged. The best, and only course of action that can help him now, is to let him go.
What is the underlying issue?
Archie sustained profound brain damage from lack of oxygen in early April, when he was found at home with a ligature around his neck. All medical experts who have examined him have agreed that he has absolutely devastating brain damage, from which there is no possibility of recovery. Indeed, the doctors treating him initially believed that the brain damage was so severe that he was brain dead. However, the Court of Appeal in another hearing back in June found that Archie could not be declared brain dead (because the usual testing for brain death was not possible). But even if he is not brain dead, there remains a question about whether it is right to keep him alive.
Why was the appeal rejected?
Archie’s parents had previously mounted a series of legal appeals against a decision by Justice Hayden in mid-July that it would be best for Archie to stop the life support machines that are keeping him alive. That included an appeal to the highest court in the UK, the Supreme Court.
Yesterday, the Court of Appeal concluded that it would be wrong to further delay the decision. The UN committee had no legal status in UK law, and therefore would not change the decision about what would be best for Archie.
How common are these disputes?