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Doctors given permission to turn off life support for toddler

Yesterday I was contacted by Telegraph journalist Camilla Turner. She wanted my views on an unusual – and frankly rather heart-breaking – case which has just gone before the High Court in London.

The case concerned an 18 month-old toddler who – sadly – choked on a plastic cap while at home with his mother in February, then went into cardiac arrest. Doctors saved the boy’s life but he was left, thanks to serious brain damage, in a “deep coma and completely unresponsive”. Doctors reached the conclusion that nothing g more could be done for him, leaving his parents with an awful decision to make. Should they switch off their baby son’s life support machine?

Any parent would blanche at the mere thought of such a scenario, but for the (of course) unnamed parents in this case it was reality. An already hard decision was made worse for the mother, it seems, by her religious beliefs, which were reportedly “deep-seated” and the word used to describe her resulting state of mind was “turmoil”. It was unsurprising therefore, to hear that when doctors at the NHS Trust caring for the toddler applied for leave to withdraw the treatment, she felt quite unable to take part in the decision. The baby’s father, meanwhile, supported the Trust’s application.

The case fell to Mr Justice Hayden who did an admirable job. He acknowledged the acute suffering of the parents, as well as the mother’s right to delegate such a difficult decision – before making the only sensible decision he could in the circumstances: that the life support machines should be switched off.

The Judge declared:

“In February, when he was only 15 months old, tragedy struck him and his family. He choked on a small plastic medicine cap whilst at home with his mum. All of us – doctors, lawyers, judges, parents – try to empathise… But the truth, I suspect, is that the pain of this trauma is too acute for most of us really to try to imagine.”

He had made the “life or death” decision required with great care, he stressed.

“But what is truly in focus is the right of this little boy with whom I am concerned not to die but to live whatever remains of his life, however short that may be, in a way that is in his best interests.”

This was an uncommon case. Normally, when a child has been left confined to life support, the desperate parents find themselves at loggerheads with the doctors who want to switch off the machines, clinging to any slim hope of salvation for their son or daughter. This was a clearly a different, albeit quite understandable situation. My heart goes to the mother and father and we can only hope that the judgement has brought them some peace.

The judgement does not appear to be available to online yet but the Telegraph report is here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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