Leading article: Judgment of Solomon


Many people, on hearing about the condition of the severely disabled baby at the centre of yesterday's High Court ruling, might be tempted to agree with the doctors who claim his young life is "intolerable". The 19-month-old boy, who has been in a high-dependency unit in hospital for almost his entire life, has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that will eventually result in total paralysis. Already, the child cannot breathe without a ventilator. And the only part of his body that he can move voluntarily is his eyebrows. Many of us would consider such a life "intolerable" if similarly afflicted. But it is very dangerous to leap from such an acknowledgement to argue that this child's ventilator should be switched off. This is what the doctors treating this baby argued in court. And Mr Justice Holman was right to rule against them.

We do not argue this from a position of "pro-life" fundamentalism. This newspaper believes, for instance, that there is a strong case for changing the law to make voluntary euthanasia legal if the patient is competent to reach a considered decision. And we, of course, accept that medical techniques have developed to such an extent that it is now possible to keep a human body alive after the brain has died. A line clearly has to be drawn somewhere. In the tragic case of Charlotte Wyatt, two years ago, we agreed with the court ruling that, if the child were to suffer a seizure, it would be inhumane for doctors to attempt to revive her.

But there is a difference between refraining from taking action and actively withdrawing the means to live. The doctors in this latest case were wrong to argue that the humane course would be to switch off the baby's ventilator. However physically debilitated, there is no evidence that this child is mentally impaired. The doctors treating him do not dispute that he has sensory awareness. This was the first time a British court had been asked to decide on medical grounds whether a mentally functioning person should live or die. It would have been a grave decision indeed if the judge had found for the hospital.

We must also bear in mind the feelings of the parents. In this case they argued powerfully that their son has a quality of life and should be kept attached to the ventilator. The wishes of the parents in such cases must be paramount. They should take precedence over the opinions of doctors, unless there is an overwhelming reason to discount them.

We do not claim that this was a simple case. To be absolutely sure of reaching the right verdict, Mr Justice Holman needed to perform the impossible task of getting inside the head of a severely disabled baby who lacked any means of communication. But, in the absence of any compelling evidence of brain damage or unbearable pain, the judge reached the only humane decision available to him.

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