This difficult, but wise, decision should not diminish respect for parents' rights

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The Independent Online

No one can have felt anything but sympathy for the parents of Charlotte Wyatt in their impossible dilemma, or with the doctors, or with the judge. This was truly a judgment of Solomon. No outcome was ever going to satisfy both parties. No outcome, perhaps, could ever have been absolutely just.

The immediate significance of the ruling handed down by the court yesterday is that it gives the professional judgement of the doctors precedence over the highly personal appeals of the parents. Although the court stressed the singularity of this case and the impossibility of giving a ruling that would apply beyond this one case, it will nonetheless be seen as setting a benchmark.

The doctors had argued that Charlotte, born three months premature and gravely ill, was suffering and that her best interests would not be served by what they described as further aggressive treatment. Her parents, both committed Christians professing a belief in the sanctity of life, had argued to the contrary with a depth of emotion that made it almost unbearable even to read on the printed page. They denied that Charlotte was suffering and insisted that she had a quality of life that they could see and appreciate.

Admitting all the difficulties of the case, Mr Justice Hedley concurred with the doctors. It had never been a question of whether Charlotte would die, he said, but when. He agreed with their assessment that in the event of another seizure, the baby should not be attached to a ventilator, but allowed to die.

He suggested the possibility of a minor operation to make Charlotte more comfortable, but - in the last analysis - seemed to have been guided by the principle that doctors should not strive officiously to keep alive. "Aggressive treatment", he said categorically, was not in the child's interests. Taking in the particular circumstances of this case, this judgment seems right. This child's survival does not depend on pulling a plug. It is not that sort of decision. It depends on an intervention that would have every chance of achieving only the opposite of what the parents say they want: a dignified and peaceful death for their daughter.

In the vast majority of cases, the wishes and instincts of the parents should be paramount, even when very young children or highly complex medical decisions are involved. There are too many times when professionals, doctors included, keep vital information to themselves or treat relatives with a "we-know-best" attitude. Sometimes this is because they are short of time; sometimes this is because they want to spare the feelings of the relatives. But by no means always.

In this case, the sincerely held views of well-meaning people differed and could not be reconciled. Given this impasse, it was right that the case should have been submitted to the High Court. It was right, too, that the hearings were held in public. This court is our court.

This was a case, too, which for all its special circumstances, had implications that went far beyond the parents and child concerned. It was a case in which several important strands of modern life came together: the continuing advance of medical technology, the greater awareness of individuals in this country about their rights under the law, and our more demanding and informed approach to public services.

There was a time when Charlotte would not have survived long beyond birth. There was a time, too, when even if she had survived in her current, damaged, condition, a doctor might have quietly performed what he or she would doubtless have regarded as a merciful act. The doctors would not have considered Charlotte's future a dilemma. Her parents would have been either grateful or none the wiser.

Those were simpler times. Progress has made for many complications, some of them welcome, some not. This was a clear and well-founded ruling in an exceptionally difficult case, and for that we should all be grateful. But it must not serve as too wide a precedent.

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