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

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape