End of life decisions

Harm, Interests and Medical Treatment. Where the Supreme Court Got it Wrong…

By Dominic Wilkinson

@Neonatalethics

 

In the latest case of disputed medical treatment for a child, the family of Liverpool toddler Alfie Evans yesterday lost their last legal appeal. The family had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to examine whether the UK courts’ decision (to allow doctors to stop life support) was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court (as it had in two other cases in the last 12 months) rejected the appeal. It is expected that the artificial ventilation that is currently keeping Alfie alive will be withdrawn in the coming days.

This decision, difficult as it is for his family to accept, is the right decision for Alfie. Medical treatment can no longer help him. As I wrote a month ago, it is time to stop fighting, time to let him go.

However, one important legal and ethical issue raised in this case, and in the case of Charlie Gard from last year, is about the basis for deciding when parents and doctors disagree. What ethical standard should apply?

Last week, the UK Supreme Court adamantly refused Alfie’s parents’ previous legal appeal, focused on this specific question.  I will argue that the court’s arguments fail and that the current UK legal approach is mistaken. (Though in fact, in the Evans case as in the case of Charlie Gard, it seems likely that the court would have reached the same decision about treatment even if it had applied a different ethical standard).

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Where There is Life, There is Not Always Hope. Ethics, Futility and the Alfie Evans Case

by Dominic Wilkinson

@Neonatalethics

[Updated 22/02/18]

This afternoon, in another case of disputed medical treatment for a seriously ill child, Justice Hayden in the High Court concluded that treatment should be withdrawn from toddler Alfie Evans against the wishes of his parents.

See below for a press release on the Alfie Evans decision. I will add further reports and links to the court transcript when it is available.

See here for ethics commentary and resources on the Charlie Gard case.

See also my recent blog on the Evans and Haastrup cases: Medical treatment disputes and the international second opinion

Details from the court ruling (Liverpool Echo)

Court judgement

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Medical Treatment Disputes and the International Second Opinion

By Dominic Wilkinson

@Neonatalethics

 

Disputes about medical treatment for seriously ill children are in the news again. Last week, the High Court in London decided in favour of withdrawal of life support from a brain damaged 11-month old infant, Isaiah Haastrup, against the wishes of his parents (an appeal is pending later this month). This week, the High court, sitting in Liverpool, is hearing evidence in the case of 20-month-old Alfie Evans, an infant with an undiagnosed degenerative brain condition.

In both of these cases, as in the controversial Charlie Gard case from last year, medical evidence from UK professionals has been overwhelmingly in favour of withdrawing life support and allowing the children to die. However, in each case parents have sought and have obtained evidence from overseas medical specialists who have testified in favour of continued treatment. In the Evans case, as in the earlier Gard case, experts from the Vatican hospital in Rome have apparently offered ongoing treatment.

This suggests several questions. First, why is there a difference between the views of specialists in this country and those overseas? Second, if there are differences in expert opinion about treatment for a child, should courts give any more weight to the views of UK experts than those from overseas? Is there a valid reason to discount the international second opinion?

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‘Being a burden’: an Illegitimate Ground For Assisted Dying

The issue of the legality in England and Wales of physician-assisted suicide has recently been revisited by the Divisional Court. Judgment is awaited. The judgment of the Court of Appeal, granting permission for judicial review, is here.

The basic issue before the Court of Appeal was the same as that in Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice and R (Purdy) v DPP: does the right to determine how one lives one’s private life (protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights)  confer a right to have an assisted death?

Many factors have been said to be relevant to decisions about assisted dying. They include intractable pain (rather a weak criterion, given modern palliative methods), hopeless prognosis – likely to result in death in a short time –  and simple autonomy (‘It’s my right to determine where, when, and in what circumstances I end my life, and that’s an end of the matter’). One factor, commonly in the minds of patients asking for help in ending their lives, but rarely mentioned by advocates of assisted dying, is that the patient feels that she is a burden to her family and carers. 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

Video Series: Charlie Gard should be allowed to die, says Dominic Wilkinson

Dominic Wilkinson, Consultant Neonatologist and Professor in Medical Ethics, argues that Charlie Gard should be allowed to die and that disagreement about this case is not necessarily ‘reasonable’ disagreement. He also explains what could possibly change his mind about the case.

 

Video Series: Professor Julian Savulescu argues in favour of an experimental treatment for Charlie Gard

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.

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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.

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