Too much faith in bad science, too little humanity

He cannot bear all the blame for a hysterical lack of humanity towards women whose babies die
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The Independent Online

Suddenly, shockingly and completely, the orthodoxies preached for decades by Professor Sir Roy Meadow have come crashing to the ground. The rule of thumb he borrowed from the theories of a US paediatrician, Vincent Dimaio, now seems absurd. His little mantra became known as Meadow's Law, and it insisted that one cot death was tragic, two was suspicious and three was murder.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we can all see that the unexplained deaths of babies are not suitable events for the application of judgmental homilies. We can see too that for such an opinion to be paraded again and again as evidence in cases where babies have lost their lives is prejudicial in the extreme. We can see as well, that Sir Roy's own biased opinionating is nothing whatever to do with medical procedure. Meadow's Law, in the ascendant for far too long, is at last exposed for what it is - a nasty little slogan coined in bad faith, bad taste, bad law and bad science.

But what suffering has been imposed upon families in order for us to wake up to what now seems obvious. The retired paediatrician's standing had been damaged when the conviction he had helped to secure against Sally Clark for killing her two infant boys was overturned by the appeal court in January.

His reputation took a further knock, when later in the year a jury rejected his "evidence" as an expert witness in the trial of Trupti Patel, accused of killing three of her tiny babies. Finally, with the quashing of Angela Cannings's conviction this week, again for the killing of her infant babies, Sir Roy's eminent career has collapsed into rubble.

The thought of the treatment these women, battered by the loss of one baby after another, then tried for murder and finally in two out of three cases, convicted and sent to jail, is too awful to contemplate. Yet there is more horror to come. Donna Anthony still languishes in jail, taunted as a baby killer, five years after Sir Roy's strident and unreliable evidence condemned her. She is not the only one. At least four other convictions are being reassessed now that Sir Roy's wisdom has been discredited.

Then there are the women whose cases never came to trial. Julie Ferris was detained indefinitely after her two babies died, but was eventually bailed after a local media campaign. Donna Harrison suffered a three-year inquiry on Sir Roy's say-so after her two sons died, which only ended when it came to light, recently, that officers were relying solely on Sir Roy's evangelical, heartless, advice.

And there is more, much more. Sir Roy's popularity as an expert witness did not stop with the criminal courts. He has given evidence in many civil cases, which are conducted in the family courts where the media is banned. Some people have been brave enough to defy the gagging orders routinely given out by the family courts to tell their stories, changing their names for legal reasons.

Karen Haynes has spoken of how her baby daughter Emma was taken from her at birth and adopted, after her son died of respiratory failure. Michelle Carter has told of how after a near-death incident with her youngest daughter, all of her children were taken away, and she and her husband were told by the family court to "forget they'd ever had four children".

Again, these terrible tales tell only a small part of the story. Some campaigners estimate that thousands of children may have been separated from their children, either on the direct evidence of Sir Roy himself, or through the agency of other childcare experts who embraced with enthusiasm his influential theories.

Looking back it is easy to see how he arrived at them, and how it might be that he stuck to them with such tenacity. He came to prominence in 1977, when he identified a new syndrome, in a paper in the Lancet entitled Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy: The Hinterlands of Child Abuse. This theory suggested that a definite pattern existed whereby people deliberately harmed their children in order to gain attention for themselves. Sir Roy, having identified this syndrome, began to see it everywhere. For him, there could be no other explanation when a mother had the misfortune to lose her babies.

One of the pieces of evidence in the Trupti Patel trial that swayed the jury was the evidence of her maternal grandmother, who lost five of her own 12 children in infancy. Sir Roy claimed that there was no genetic explanation for sudden infant death syndrome. But the fact remains that the history of infant deaths in the family is much more likely to lie with the family's genetic predisposition towards a rare illness called Long Q-T Syndrome than a tendency towards Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy.

We accept quite readily that while the reasons are not necessarily understood, some women have a tragic predilection towards multiple miscarriage. It seems insane that such sympathetic understanding should evaporate when babies have been brought to term, then lose their lives in the weeks or months after birth.

And that is the crux of the matter. For while it is always comforting, when scandals like this one come to light, to pin all the blame on a single scapegoat, Sir Roy cannot bear all the blame for the hysterical lack of humanity towards women whose babies die that has sprung up in recent years.

First, there is the acknowledged lack of research into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and the odd lack of interest in foetuses and babies that die. There are only around 40 paediatric pathologists practising in Britain at the moment, so experts like Sir Roy, who typically have no connection to the case they are asked to pontificate about, are often brought in instead of a genuine expert who has examined a baby for an actual cause of death.

This has implications for the police and the courts as well as the families involved, as we have seen. At the heart of this scandal lies not Sir Roy himself, but an information vacuum that Sir Roy and his ilk have been sucked into and filled. Social services are always pilloried when they fail to intervene to save an abused child. But the important thing in the cases in question here is that none of the children showed any conclusive physical evidence of abuse. These are cases in which fear of the worst has overtaken good sense and good practice.

More and more, in our complex age, we look for infallible systems to protect us, rather than the hard graft of taking each individual case on its own merits. In the wake of massive public panic about child abuse, the experts have been keen to prove that parents are more likely to abuse their children than strangers. Perhaps this has blinded us to the idea that babies sometimes die even though they have been abused by no one at all.

Further, as part of the backlash against feminism, there has been a tendency to become cavalier about traditional notions of motherhood. Almost in defiance of the idea that sane mothers cannot hurt their children, there has grown up a body of thought that is so eager to reject such views as sentimental, that it too often overcompensates.

In this respect, all the women punished so harshly for the deaths of their babies have fallen victim of what we used to call the "sex war". Sir Roy cannot be held responsible for all of these quirks and failures. But his fall should mark the point at which we rejected all of them, instead of simply, complacently, leaving him to carry the can.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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