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Judge says doctors can withdraw baby’s life support against parents’ wishes

The parents of Charlie Gard leave the Royal Courts of Justice (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Doctors have been granted the right to withdraw life support from a sick baby against his parent’s wishes, following a ruling in Britain’s High Court today.

Mr Justice Francis ruled that it was in the best interests of eight-month old Charlie Gard to remove life support, saying he made the decision with “the heaviest of hearts”.

Baby Charlie was born on August 4 and suffers with a disorder called mitochondrial depletion syndrome which causes progressive muscle weakness.

His parents, Connie Yates and Chris Gard, were hoping to take their son to America for a treatment trial.

Specialists at Great Ormond Sreet Hospital said that Charlie had irreversible brain damage and should be moved to palliative care.

But Justice Francis said that he has “complete conviction” that removing life support was in the best interests of the baby boy, prompting Chris Gard to shout out “no” in court before both he and Connie Yates broke down in tears.

Their solicitor Laura Hobey-Hamsher said the couple were “devastated” by the decision and could not comprehend why the judge had not “at least given Charlie the chance of treatment”.

The couple had raised £1.25m towards funding the treatment for their son.

Commenting on the case, Professor David Albert Jones of the The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, said: “Cases such as this are very difficult. Tragically, for some very sick children there is no hope of recovery. In such cases it is important to accept that the child is dying so that he or she can receive the best palliative care and avoid futile treatment.

“However, doctors can be wrong about the prospect of benefit or what counts as “benefit”. Judgments about what is in the “best interest” of a child may also be influenced by negative value judgments about life with disability. For this reason parents, acting on behalf of their child, have the right to a second medical opinion. When doctors and parents still cannot agree as to what is in the best interest of a child, the case may go to court and the court will make a judgment.

“In this case, the medical experts currently caring for Charlie were convinced that he was dying and that the proposed experimental treatment was unlikely to bring any benefit. This is why the court took the side of the doctors, against the parents. On the other hand, a doctor in the United States would have given the benefit of the doubt to the parents’ wishes and provided the experimental treatment. It is not clear that Charlie would have been harmed by this.”

He continued: “The problem in this case is not that the judge made a bad decision as to what, on the balance of probabilities, was in the best interest of Charlie. Perhaps withdrawal of treatment and palliative care is best for him. The problem is that this is the wrong question. It treats Charlie as though he had no parents or as though his parents had already been shown to be irresponsible or harmful. In a case like this, the question should not be ‘What would I do if I were Charlie’s mother or father?’ but ‘Are Charlie’s mother and father acting very unreasonably?’

“Without a detailed knowledge of the case it is not possible to judge whether or not the parents were acting so unreasonably that decisions about their child could be taken from them. However, in general, when it comes to difficult cases, different people can come to different opinions which are not obviously unreasonable. Hence, the decision to seek treatment elsewhere should be for the parents to make unless it is clear, beyond reasonable doubt, that they are acting against the child’s best interest.”