Ethics review set up after ruling on Wyatt baby

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The Independent Online

An independent review into the ethics of resuscitating and treating extremely premature babies has been set up, amid growing concern among doctors and parents over how such life and death decisions are taken.

An independent review into the ethics of resuscitating and treating extremely premature babies has been set up, amid growing concern among doctors and parents over how such life and death decisions are taken.

The agonising dilemmas facing families and the medical profession over the treatment of premature children have been highlighted by the case of 11-month-old Charlotte Wyatt.

On Thursday, a High Court judge ruled that doctors should be allowed to let Charlotte die, despite her parents' demands that she should be revived and actively treated if she stopped breathing. Charlotte was born three months' premature and suffers from severe mental and physical handicaps that doctors say have left her in constant pain with an "intolerable" quality of life. The case centred on the ethics of how aggressively sick babies should be treated when they have severe disabilities and poor future prospects.

Now the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that makes recommendations on how doctors should deal with complex ethical issues, has established a specialist working party. The committee has been asked to look at the ethics of prolonging life in foetuses and very premature babies.

It has not been prompted by the Charlotte Wyatt case, but will consider the judge's ruling as part of its investigation.

Professor Margaret Brazier, professor of law at the University of Manchester, will chair the working party. She said: "I am approaching this with some trepidation because there are so many issues and opinions surrounding this subject.

"There is a question over whether, because we can now treat these babies, should we be treating them and how much."

Doctors make decisions about the resuscitation of newborn, premature babies based on their "viability". Premature babies are now surviving at 22 weeks' gestation and being revived by medical teams. In contrast, Dutch doctors have clear guidelines, which state that babies born under 25 weeks should not be revived.

Professor Brazier said: "This whole area raises very, very strong feelings and difficult ethical issues. The science can be inexact. We cannot make rules simply on gestational age."

The committee includes two lawyers, two philosophers, paediatric experts, parents' groups and disability campaigners.

Rob Williams, the chief executive of the premature baby charity Bliss, said: "It can be very difficult for doctors and parents in individual cases because the emotions on a premature baby ward can be so raw and on the surface."