It must have come as quite a shock to the doctors in the Tafida Raqeeb case that a court was finally prepared to ignore their conviction that they knew better than the parents, and to allow this very sick child to be taken to Italy to a hospital that is happy to care for her.
Until now courts have always ruled on the side of the doctors, seemingly unwilling to challenge their expert opinion.
The parents of Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard had to watch as their children’s life support was removed against their wishes, while the parents of Ashya King were arrested after taking their son abroad for treatment.
Let us be clear. When doctors talk about “allowing a child to die” they are talking about refusing any alternative treatment and taking legal action to block further care – even when it is offered, as it was in the case of Alfie, from highly reputable places such as the Bambino Gesù Hospital in Rome.
The parents are treated as though they are talking about voodoo treatment instead of established centres of medical excellence. Even the offer of a papal helicopter staffed by medics was in one instance regarded with all the scorn that might reasonably have been accorded a battered mini van.
So what was different in this case, and is it the start of a new approach or simply the exception which proves the rule? It undeniably helped that the mother is a solicitor who could argue calmly and logically in court. For once the medical profession could not claim that the parents were simply emotional and misguided and they, the chaps in white coats,
It also helped that the family had taken photographs which appeared to indicate little Tafida could be more aware than the doctors believed; and that there was a guaranteed place for her in an Italian hospital. But crucially the judge took into account the parents’ religious beliefs. The family is Muslim and Islamic law says only God’s will can end the girl’s life.
Would that judges had been half as respectful of Christian beliefs; but this acknowledgement that belief is to be taken into account may set a precedent for future contests. From now on a parent of non-Muslim faith could justly cry “discrimination” if that belief were not given equal weight.
Yet those contests could be avoided altogether if there were a law, as suggested by Tafida’s parents, that where alternative provision was being offered in a reputable establishment, that option must always be taken up. That is rather more sensible and difficult to argue with than the simple assertion that parents know best.
They don’t necessarily.
Yet doctors are not infallible either. They misdiagnose. They get prognoses wrong. They pressure mothers to have abortions and some who refuse still end up with healthy children. They fail to spot meningitis and send sick babes home. Very occasionally they have been known to err even when pronouncing death itself, with disconcerting results. All they can ever offer is their best judgment, conscientiously given. And that judgment can be wrong. By allowing Tafida’s parents to remove the child to another hospital the High Court has recognised that very simple fact.
It is therefore worrying that the mother claims that the parents’ relationship with the doctors has gone into “complete meltdown”. She is quoted as saying that they don’t talk but just walk by. I hope that is not true because if it is then it is difficult to see how the medics can even begin to claim that they have the best interests of the child at heart. Ignoring loving parents is no manifestation of that. It isn’t much evidence of humility either but rather of an arrogant resentment. Their job now is to do all they can for Tafida while arrangements are made for her to be moved.
At least doctors will know in future that they will not be regarded as infallible by the courts and may therefore be more co-operative with the parents, whether willingly or not. Whatever the eventual outcome of Tafida’s illness and disability, her parents will always know that they have struck a blow for parental decision-making, and probably made it more likely that doctors will in future give a more sympathetic ear to the parents to start with, instead of dismissing every small sign they have noted as a triumph of hope over reality. As Mrs Raqeeb pointed out, the parents spend more time sitting and watching their offspring than do the medical staff.
It is too early to say whether the Tafida Raqeeb case marks a turning of the tide, but on this occasion Canute has won.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and Brexit Party MEP
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