Clinical Ethics

The ethics of treatment for Charlie Gard: resources for students/media

by Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu

 

The case of Charlie Gard has reached its sad conclusion. However, it continues to attract intense public attention. It raises a number of challenging and important ethical questions.

The role of Practical Ethics in cases like this is to help clarify the key concepts, identify central ethical questions, separate them from questions of scientific fact and subject arguments to critical scrutiny. We have disagreed about the right course of action for Charlie Gard, but agree on the role of ethical analysis and the importance of robust and informed debate. Ethics is not about personal opinion – but about argument, reasons, and rational reflection.

We have collected together below some of the materials on the Charlie Gard case that we and others have written as well as some relevant resources from our earlier work. We will update this page as more material becomes available. (*Updated 24/7/17) Continue reading

Burke, Briggs and Wills: Why we should not fear the judgment in Charlie Gard

In a blog post today, Julian Savulescu argues that in a parallel adult version of the highly controversial Charlie Gard case, a UK court might thwart an unconscious patient’s previously expressed desire for self-funded experimental medical treatment. He finds the Gard decision deeply disturbing and suggests that we all have reason to fear the Charlie Gard judgment.

I respectfully beg to differ.

Julian’s thought experiment of the billionaire ‘Donald Wills’ is not analogous to the real Charlie Gard case, his analysis of the UK legal approach to best interests cases for adults is potentially mistaken, his fear is misplaced. Continue reading

The sad case of Charlie Gard and the rights *and wrongs* of experimental treatment

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

 

In a blog post published yesterday, Julian Savulescu argues that Charlie Gard should have received the experimental treatment requested by his parents 6 months ago. He further argues that “we should be more aggressive about trials of therapy where there are no other good options”.

I have previously argued (in a blog and in an editorial in the Lancet) that the requested treatment is not in Charlie’s best interests. In a forthcoming paper (co-authored with John Paris, Jag Ahluwahlia, Brian Cummings and Michael Moreland), we compare the US and UK legal approaches to cases like this, and argue that the US approach is deeply flawed.

Here are four areas where I agree with Julian

  1. In retrospect, it would have been better for Charlie to have received the requested treatment 6 months ago than to have a protracted legal dispute (with continued treatment in intensive care anyway)
  2. We should generally allow patients who are dying or severely ill, without other available treatment, to try experimental treatment if that is something that they (or their family) strongly desire
  3. If experimental treatments are unaffordable in public health systems but patients are able to pay for them privately, or have crowd-sourced funding for them, they should be made available
  4. Experimental treatments should not be provided where the side effects make that treatment highly likely not to be in the patient’s interests.

However, despite these areas of common ground, I reach starkly different conclusions from Julian. In my view, the doctors were right to oppose experimental treatment for Charlie in January, the judges were right to decline the family’s request for treatment in April, and it would be deeply ethically problematic to provide the treatment now, notwithstanding the recent intervention of the US president and the Pope. Continue reading

The non-identity problem of professional philosophers

By Charles Foster

Philosophers have a non-identity problem. It is that they are not identified as relevant by the courts. This, in an age where funding and preferment are often linked to engagement with the non-academic world, is a worry.

This irrelevance was brutally demonstrated in an English Court of Appeal case,  (‘the CICA case’) the facts of which were a tragic illustration of the non-identity problem. Continue reading

Agreement and disagreement about experimental treatment. The Charlie Gard Appeal

by Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu

@Neonatalethics

@juliansavulescu

Tomorrow, the UK Court of Appeal will review the controversial case of a British infant, Charlie Gard. Charlie’s parents are appealing a recent High Court decision that gave doctors permission to withdraw his life support. They have raised money for Charlie to travel to the US for an experimental medical treatment. Continue reading

Debate: The Fiction of an Interest in Death? Justice for Charlie Gard

Julian Savulescu

Dominic Wilkinson’s Response

A judge ruled last week that baby Charlie Gard will have his treatment withdrawn, against the wishes of his parents. His doctors argued that the rare mitochondrial disease (MDDS) he was born with was causing him unbearable suffering.

His parents had raised funds to take him to the US for experimental treatment and they wanted the chance to try the treatment. His doctors argued that such treatment could only prolong his suffering. It was their belief that it was in his best interests for treatment to be withdrawn, and for his life to end, a belief which the trial judge endorsed.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts, but with complete conviction for Charlie’s best interests, that I find it is in Charlie’s best interests that I accede to these applications and rule that GOSH may lawfully withdraw all treatment save for palliative care to permit Charlie to die with dignity.”

This is a profoundly difficult decision, and one in which all parties are acting out of care and compassion for the child. My comments are of course limited as I do not have access to all the relevant facts. However, it does raise an important question about the current basis of such decisions.

Ethics of Limitation of Life Prolonging Medical Treatment

In general, medicine has a presumption in favour of saving life, or prolonging life. There are three justifications for departing from this default. That is, there are 3 justifications for withholding or withdrawing life prolonging medical treatment:

  1. the patient autonomously refuses it. (autonomy)
  2. continued life is no longer in the patient’s interests (best interests)
  3. the probability of the treatment prolonging life, or the quality of life, or the length of time the patient can surVive are too low to justify the cost of the attempt (distributive justice)

Sometimes treatment is withheld or withdrawn because it is “futile.” Dominic Wilkinson and I have argued that although futility is often said to refer to “best interests”, it is more appropriately interpreted as a justice justification for limitation, that is, criterion 3. The reason we have argued this is that the best interests justification (2), requires that doctors establish that life is no longer worth living. That is, that the person would be better off dead. This is a very difficult standard to establish, even if the concept of a life not worth living is coherent. Justice does not require that we establish where the line of of a life worth living is. It only requires a comparative judgement – that compared to other uses of a limited medical resource, this use is not justified. The NHS has thresholds for cost-effectiveness that it routinely employs. A justice justification for limiting life prolonging medical treatment only requires an extension of this every day approach. For example, a treatment which has a 1/10,000 of prolonging a person’s life is a lower priority than a treatment which has a 50% chance of extending life. We need not say that the first treatment is “futile” or confers no benefit to the patient. We need only say that it is very poor value for money.

Continue reading

Debate Response: Charlie Gard, Interests and Justice – an alternative view

Dominic Wilkinson

Responding to Julian Savulescu

The sad and difficult case of Charlie Gard, which featured in the media last week, is the latest in a series of High Court and Family court cases when parents and doctors have disagreed about medical treatment for a child. Doctors regard the treatment as “futile” or “potentially inappropriate”. Parents, in contrast, want treatment to continue, perhaps in the hope that the child’s condition will improve. In the Charlie Gard case, the judge, Justice Francis, rejected Charlie’s parents’ request for him to travel to the US for an experimental medical treatment. He ruled that life-sustaining treatment could be withdrawn, and Charlie allowed to die.

Two reasons

As Julian Savulescu argues,there are two different ethical reasons for health professionals to refuse to provide requested medical treatment for a child. The first of these is based on concern for the best interests of the patient. Treatment should not be provided if it would harm the child. The second reason is on the basis of distributive justice. In a public health system with limited resources, providing expensive or scarce treatment would potentially harm other patients since it would mean that those other patients would be denied access to treatment.

Continue reading

Damages and communitarianism

By Charles Foster

The Lord Chancellor recently announced that the discount rate under the Damages Act 1996 would be decreased from 2.5% to minus 0.75%. This sounds dull. In fact it is financially tectonic, and raises some important ethical questions.

In the law of tort, damages are intended to put a claimant in the position that she would have been in had the tort not occurred. A claimant who, as result of negligence on the part of a defendant, suffers personal injury, will be entitled to, inter alia, damages representing future loss of earnings, the future cost of care and, often, private medical and other treatment.

Where damages are awarded as a lump sum, there is a risk of over-compensating a claimant. Suppose that the claimant is 10 years old at the time of the award, and will live for 70 years, and the future care costs are £1000 a year for life. Should the sum awarded be £1000 x 70 years = £70,000? (70, here, is what lawyers call the ‘multiplier’). It depends on the assumption one makes about what the claimant will do with the lump sum. If she invests it in equities that give her (say) an annual 5% return, £70,000 would over-compensate her.

In the case of Wells v Wells1, the House of Lords decided that, to avoid the risk of under-compensation, claimants should be treated as risk-averse investors. It should be assumed, said the House, that the discount rate should be fixed by reference to the return on index-linked gilts – Government securities. The rate was 2.5% from 2001 until February of this year. The reasons for the change to minus 0.75% are hereContinue reading

How do medical professionals decide on treatment options for children?

Following widespread media coverage about the court case where baby Charlie Gard’s parents were told that his life support would be removed against their wishes, Dominic Wilkinson appeared on BBC’s Newsnight to discuss the factors that doctors take into account when making such difficult decisions.

Short Video
Full Programme

Four myths about IVF in older women

Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics

Reports that a 62-year-old Spanish woman has given birth after IVF treatment have led many to question whether there should be age limits with such treatment. Lina Alvarez, a doctor in north-west Spain, isn’t the oldest person to have had success with IVF. Earlier this year, in India, Daljinder Kaur is said to have given birth at the age of 72, prompting calls from the Indian Medical Council for a ban on fertility treatment in women over the age of 50.

In many countries where there is funding assistance for IVF there is a limit to obtaining treatment over a certain age. In Britain, for example, the bar is set at age 42. But Alvarez received private treatment. So why care about her age? And what business is it of the rest of us whether she has access to IVF?

There are several arguments that typically surface in debates about age and fertility treatment – and they are all deeply flawed. Continue reading

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