Doctors win battle to let baby die

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Health Editor

A trust hospital has won its legal battle to switch off the ventilator of a severely brain- damaged baby girl so that she can die in peace.

Three-month old Baby C is unlikely to develop beyond the level of a six- week-old and has a life expectancy of less than two years, according to doctors. Although she is not in a coma she is unable to breathe without the aid of a ventilator. She is also blind, deaf, and unable to respond to her parents who, together with doctors and nursing staff, strongly supported the trust hospital's action.

Sir Stephen Brown, president of the High Court Family Division, yesterday described the case as "tragic". He said that the courts would not tell doctors how to perform their clinical and professional duties but they were willing to help with the taking of responsibility.

"It is quite clear from the evidence, which is unanimous, that the doctors, in the exercise of their grave responsibility, all consider that it is in the best interests of this little baby that she should now cease to be artificially ventilated ... If she were to remain on the machine, a deteriorating condition would follow, with increasing pain and distress," Sir Stephen said.

The judge said he had no doubt that all those concerned "will exercise the greatest care in dealing with what remains of her life". However, he declined to make any general statement on how similar ethical dilemmas should be handled. He said that each case depended on its merits, especially when a child was a ward of court and any important step in that child's life required the leave of the court. Many moral, ethical and practical problems were involved, "but I think we have to deal with particular cases on their particular facts".

Earlier, Michael Taylor, counsel for the hospital, said that Baby C was born eight weeks prematurely on 2 January with a slow heart rate, respiratory distress, jaundice and hypothermia.

At the age of two weeks she developed meningitis and suffered a seizure and septicaemia. She recovered but was left seriously disabled, unable to make spontaneous movements apart from convulsions. She now had severe shrinkage of her brain, Mr Taylor said, and she had developed obstructive hydrocephalus. the build-up of fluid in the skull which would cause severe swelling unless relieved.

No surgical treatment could restore her to health, he told the High Court, and her life expectancy was between one and two years even with comprehensive medical and surgical intervention.

"That treatment would be readily offered, as it is now, except for the concern of the doctors that it would be unfair to the baby [for it] to continue," Mr Taylor said. "It would be unfair because she would suffer distress and pain ..."

If her ventilator were switched off and she was heavily sedated, doctors say she would die within an hour without pain. Doctors had spoken to other paediatricians and consulted the parents, Mr Taylor added. "The view was taken by all concerned that it would be proper for the ventilator treatment to be withdrawn."

Baby C is a ward of court and neither she or the hospital can be identified. She was represented in court by counsel for the Official Solicitor, as guardian of her interests. Her parents were separately represented.