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Leading article: Hard cases and good law

Wednesday 11 November 2009 01:00 GMT

The sad case of Baby RB, which has been argued to and fro before the High Court, ended summarily yesterday when the one-year-old boy's father accepted the hospital's case for withdrawing life support. This unexpected development had two immediate effects. The doctors are now within their rights to halt life support, so as to allow the severely disabled child – as the hospital put it – "a peaceful, calm and dignified death". And the judge will not have to reach a decision – although he hinted what it would have been when he said that the outcome was, in his view, "inevitable".

While it is clearly preferable, from the human point of view, that this case should have concluded with a consensus – between the doctors who argued for ending life support, the child's mother who agreed with them, and the father who objected – it is regrettable, from the legal and ethical perspective, that the judge was not required to weigh the arguments.

Technology is enabling doctors to prolong lives that would until very recently not have been viable. Baby RB, the court heard, had a severe muscular malfunction and could not breathe unaided; doctors caring for him essentially agreed that his affliction made any future life he might have not worth living. Against that had to be set the potential fallibility of doctors, the possibly conflicting interests of the parents and the child, the principle of the sanctity of life, and the less edifying matter of the cost to the public purse.

Many of these same issues came into play in the long-fought case of Charlotte Wyatt, where the parents eventually won the right not to have treatment withdrawn without their say-so. Charlotte survived against the odds; now five years old, she is reported to be thriving in foster care.

In their separate ways, the cases of Charlotte Wyatt and Baby RB reached conclusions that were acceptable, if deeply painful, to all concerned. And the way things turned out the court's intervention in both might now seem peripheral. Yet it is surely right that the arguments should be aired in this way. At a time of rapid medical advances and shifting public mores, the judgement of professionals needs to be tested – and the court is the place to do it.

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