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