Leading Article: Rights and common sense

Share
Related Topics
THE case of 'J' must be among the most painful ever to come before the Court of Appeal. J's father died when she was five, her mother when she was eight, her much-loved grandfather two years ago, after which a foster family could not cope. Now 16, she has been for some time in a residential psychiatric unit.

Very little imagination is required to understand her reluctance to eat. Her self-

esteem must be somewhere near zero, her view of the world and the value of life about as negative as it is possible to get, her feeling of loss of control almost total. Food may be the last area of her life over which she feels she has power, and even that power is now being taken from her by the court. Few children could survive so much loss without damage. Surprisingly, perhaps, she does not appear to wish to kill herself, merely to control her fate and decide her own treatment.

The legal aspects of the case are open to dispute and have wide implications for local authorities, which is why the Lords may eventually be called upon to decide. The Family Law Reform Act of 1969 and the Children Act of 1989 define the requirements of consent by children of 16-18 to surgical, medical and dental treatment. J claimed that they gave her the right to refuse treatment. The Court of Appeal decided yesterday that they do not give her the right to starve herself to death or to the point of causing irreparable damage to her brain or other vital organs. Medical evidence indicated that the risk of such damage had become acute.

It can be argued that this ruling sets a dangerous precedent by diminishing the rights of adolescents to refuse medical treatment. It touches on wider debates about the rights of children, the responsibilities of local authorities towards those in care and medical ethics. Perhaps, as has been suggested, there would have been other ways of rescuing J, such as by invoking the Mental Health Act, under which even adults can be treated against their will. But the judges were not being asked to decide on that issue. Given the case as put to them, they would have set a horrifying precedent if their ruling had departed from common sense and natural human feeling.

Anorexia is a sickness, whether or not it is brought on by difficult circumstances. It warps judgement and distorts perception to such an extent that its sufferers often cannot see that they are thin when they look in the mirror. J has been diagnosed as a sufferer. She is still a child in most important respects, and those in loco parentis still have obligations towards her. She badly needs specialised help and treatment.

There can be legitimate professional disagreements over the best treatment for her case. No established or universally effective treatment for anorexia has yet been found. But to have allowed a child in her state to decide on her own treatment would have been to carry the rights of children to absurd extremes and beyond those of mentally disturbed adults. To have left her to inflict lasting damage on herself would have been cruelly negligent. Medical and human ethics alone surely require that the best possible efforts be made to save her. If the law is unclear in a case like this it should be re-examined. What matters now, as the judges rightly decided, is to find the most suitable treatment for this tragic case.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on