Belief in miracles is tantamount to torture for terminally-ill children

RELIGIOUS parents who believe that “divine intervention” will save their terminally ill children are subjecting them to torture by putting them through aggressive but futile treatments.

That’s the view of two leading UK doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital. In an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics they warned that families with deeply held hopes for a “miraculous” recovery were increasingly being allowed to “stonewall” medical opinion.

Doctors at work at Great Ormond Street Hospital

According to this report, the doctors called for an overhaul of the legal system to reduce the weight given to parents’ religious beliefs in such cases.

The article was jointly written by specialist doctors from the neonatal intensive care unit at the London children’s hosptal – Dr Joe Brierley and Dr Andy Petros – and the hospital’s main chaplain, the Rev Jim Linthicum.

They warned:

While it is vital to support families in such difficult times, we are increasingly concerned that deeply held belief in religion can lead to children being potentially subjected to burdensome care in expectation of ‘miraculous’ intervention. In many cases, the children about whom the decisions are being made are too young to subscribe to the religious beliefs held by their parents, yet we continue to respect the parents’ beliefs.

Critics have accused the authors of attempting to “impose” secular values on society, irrespective of religious affiliations.

Their article follows a review of 203 cases at the unit in which parents were advised that life support systems should be switched off.

In 17 cases, the parents insisted on continuing treatment even after lengthy discussions about the probability that it would be unsuccessful. In 11 of these, religion was the main factor influencing their decision. Some of the cases were eventually resolved after religious leaders persuaded the parents to allow the child to die, and one case went to the High Court.

In the remaining cases, no agreement could be reached because the parents were awaiting a “miracle”, the authors said.

Citing examples of the treatments involved, they argued that subjecting children to suffering with no scientific hope of a cure could breach article three of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture.

Spending a lifetime attached to a mechanical ventilator having every bodily function supervised and sanitised by a carer or relative, leaving no dignity or privacy to the child or adult has been argued as inhumane.

Instead they want the process of doctors seeking court permission to withdraw treatment to be speeded up and for the law to make clear that parents’ beliefs should not be a “determining factor” in such decisions.

Although the cases included Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic families, the biggest obstacle the authors said they faced were less established, “fundamentalist” evangelical Christian groups with roots in the African community.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said:

This is probably the most terrible situation for any parent, but the experience and advice of doctors must not be held ransom to religious beliefs, however strongly held.

But in an accompanying commentary, Charles Foster, an Oxford University legal expert, argued that there was a place for religion in life and death decisions.

They seem to think that because we are becoming an increasingly ‘secular society’ there is some sort of democratically ordained mandate to impose secular values on everyone.

Note: Last September Dr Brierley, a children’s intensive care specialist, suggested that organ donantion should be discussed as part of the national curriculum so teenagers can decide for themselves if they want to be donors. Being encouraged to talk about the issue in class would make bedside conversations about donation with parents about to lose a child easier, said Dr Brierley.

Hat tip: Bill Murray

18 responses to “Belief in miracles is tantamount to torture for terminally-ill children”

  1. Ron Cooper says:

    Surely if God is going to provide a miracle it could include him rendering the ‘off’ switch inoperable, a small thing for such a powerful (?) being.

  2. barriejohn says:

    If the child were going to be cured “miraculously” the treatment wouldn’t be needed anyway!

  3. barriejohn says:

    PS I can never understand it when the religiots accuse doctors of “playing god” by switching off life-support or withdrawing treatment. Surely, intervening in the first place is playing god?

  4. tony e says:

    In relation to medicine and religion here is an article I think most of you will have already read.

  5. Marky Mark says:

    If their god was able to intervene, why did he let the illness or injury happen to an innocent child in the first place?
    …coarse they never ask that question, or say they are being tested.

    If such a deity did exist and it chose to hurt my child to test me…I’d spit in its face and kick its ass, and not worship it.

  6. Marky Mark says:

    Tony E
    Read that website a few years ago…excellent logic.

  7. Matt Westwood says:

    It boils down to the fact that parents who are going through the trauma of having a child suffer an incurable disease are rarely going to be in a position as to be able to make a rational decision (no blame to them). This needs to be recognised officially, and as such, knowing their decisions may well be based on irrational thought processes, their influence on decisions should be likewise limited.

    It’s little different in quality from the decision to prevent a parent (completely unprotected from the conditions) rushing into an out-of-control house fire to attempt to rescue a child who’s still inside. Or similar to how one should be careful of involving the parents of murder victims in the judicial process because such is their emotional state that they are rarely able to give a balanced assessment of whether or not a particular defendant is or is not guilty. More than once the response has been little different from: “I don’t care whether he did it or not, I just want to make him suffer for what happened to my little baby …”

  8. barriejohn says:

    Some of them do refuse medical treatment, of course. I don’t know what happened to Daniel Hauser, although he was reported to be in full remission in August 2011 when his father died. (His father had been treating his own Hodgkin’s Lymphoma by dietary means, but apparently died of a heart attack. A family friend said that “he was doing well battling leukemia and holding it pretty much at bay”, whatever that means where leukaemia is concerned!)

  9. Har Davids says:

    I’m not sure whether I really care about these children, as they’ll probably end as their parents if they happen to survive their disease. The best thing would be for these religious parents to stay out of hospitals and not waste tax-money. I know it sounds cruel, but with over-population and pollution, every dead human being lessens the planet’s burden a little.

  10. Lazy Susan says:

    So is it only acceptable to do whatever the latest BMA-approved research deems to have the greatest probability of success, using a government-approved yardstick for minimal quality of life to justify survival?

    Of course not – but if parents are only permitted decide what is best for their children if they are demonstrably 100% rational, is that not where we are heading?

    This is not public policy. It is an intensely private matter. I am yet to be convinced there is an argument for secularism here.

  11. Matt Westwood says:

    @Har Davids: Glad you said that and not me, it saved me the trouble …

  12. barriejohn says:

    Well, I couldn’t say it, Matt!

    @Lazy Susan: I sympathise with you there, but, as Matt said earlier (9:49 AM), people under emotional stress are not always best placed to make decisions in cases like these. When my father was dying my mother and I were called into an office by one of the doctors and I knew what was coming: they wanted to withdraw treatment. My immediate reaction was: “How dare you even suggest such a thing? This is my dad you are talking about here, and you just want to snuff out his life because he’s become a burden to you!” I didn’t say that, of course, because common sense took over. My dad was a fighter, and bore his illness stoically and with good humour right to the end, but his treatment was now distressing to both himself and his loved ones. He had prostate cancer which had spread to his legs and spine, causing him great pain, and there was nothing that anyone could do about that. His heart was failing, and at times they had to blow oxygen into his lungs at great force by means of a mask strapped to his face, and he became bloated beyond recognition. Whatever they did things were only going to end one way, and he had no quality of life at all. We reluctantly agreed that the next time that he picked up an infection they would let matters take their course. He was moved to a small, quiet ward, and my mother and I were with him when he died. He was lucid to the end and able to converse with us, and he knew that he was near the end. Finally, he just closed his eyes and stopped breathing. I know that it is much easier to come to terms with the death of an old man than that of a child, and I had close friends whose daughter died of a brain tumour, but sometimes you have to accept the inevitable, even where children are concerned. It is far too easy to make decisions for purely selfish reasons rather than with the welfare of the patient in mind.

  13. Graham Martin-Royle says:

    This is a very difficult and emotive subject. Although the report says that religion can be the reason given for not wanting to accept the advice, this is someones child we are talking about and I think reason goes out the window at this point.

    I can both sympathise with the parents for not being able to accept that their child is dying, as well as have a grudging acknowledgement that Hard Davids has a point, if these parents are so religious, then let them have their god take care of the child.

    A difficult one, one that I’m glad I don’t actually have any say in.

  14. remigius says:

    Har Davids. Well done. You have just won The Callous Wanker of the Week Award!

  15. Lazy Susan says:

    Barrie – I have reached an age where I have been present at more deaths than I really want. Some have been religious folk, some not. I have also had dogs put to sleep – and I say that rather than “put down” because the dog just settles down within about 2 seconds of the injection, no fuss, nothing. I said to the vet we should treat people so well, and he agreed. Mind you he would probably not want to start an argument in the circumstances.

    As you say we have to accept the inevitable. I would never want to be the parent of a dying child. I think that must be the worst of all possible cases.

    Apologies for a post that does not actually say anything … I’m just responding to a trigger.

  16. barriejohn says:

    Highlighted by the NSS this morning:

    As I said above, emotions seem to be raised here because (a) they are talking about chidren, and (b) there seems a specific reference to “religious” parents (do you HAVE to be religious to be hoping for a “miracle”?). Take out these two elements and I think the proposals would be seen in a different light!

  17. Broga says:

    @Lazy Susan: You have triggered something in me. We have had Labradors “put to sleep” and the phrase is appropriate. The last time the vet said, “Just hold him and stroke him so that he is reassured.” He then injected and the dog, in moments, seemed to fall asleep. Still heartbreaking for us. But to turn to humans. Why should a suffering dog be granted this and not a suffering human? But we know much of the answer to that, don’t we? Religion.