Julian Savulescu’s Posts

Hard lessons: learning from the Charlie Gard case

by Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu

 

On the 24th July 2017, the long-running, deeply tragic and emotionally fraught case of Charlie Gard reached its sad conclusion (Box 1). Following further medical assessment of the infant, Charlie’s parents and doctors finally reached agreement that continuing medical treatment was not in Charlie’s best interests. It is expected that life support will be withdrawn in the days ahead.

Over the course of multiple hearings at different levels of the court in both London and Strasbourg, the Charlie Gard case has raised a number of vexed ethical questions (Box 2). The important 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,1 2 but we agree on the key ethical principles as well as 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. While the lasting ramifications of the case for medical treatment decisions in children are yet to become apparent, we here outline some of the potential lessons. Continue reading

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 4/8/17) Continue reading

Cross Post: Speaking with: Julian Savulescu on the ethics of genetic modification in humans

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Could genetic engineering one day allow parents to have designer babies?
Tatiana Vdb/flickr, CC BY

William Isdale, University of Melbourne

What if humans are genetically unfit to overcome challenges like climate change and the growing inequality that looks set to define our future?

Julian Savulescu, visiting professor at Monash University and Uehiro professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford University, argues that modifying the biological traits of humans should be part of the solution to secure a safe and desirable future.

The University of Melbourne’s William Isdale spoke to Julian Savulescu about what aspects of humanity could be altered by genetic modifications and why it might one day actually be considered unethical to withhold genetic enhancements that could have an overwhelmingly positive effect on a child’s life. Continue reading

Burke and Wills, Bowen and Gard: The English Courts, Best Interests and Justice

The Case of Donald Wills

Donald Wills is a self-made man. He is billionaire British banker who has taken an interest in technology. He believes the Singularity is near and wishes to live as long as possible. He completes an advance directive to use his money to keep him alive at all costs, should he become ill and unable to express his wishes. He tells his wife about these desires.

Donald develops a rare condition where the mitochondria in all his cells stop working. The mitochondria are power packs for every cell. Donald’s muscles stop working and he is admitted to a famous London hospital and has to be put on a breathing machine. His brain is affected- he suffers fits which need to be controlled by medication. There is no known cure and he is going downhill.

Doctors call in his wife and explain his dismal prognosis. “It is,” they say, “in his best interests to stop this burdensome treatment in intensive care. He will never regain normal brain function but he is conscious at times and feels pain. He should be allowed to die with dignity.” After all, Donald is 75.

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

Revised Press Statement: Gard Legal Decision Questionable on Secular Ethical Grounds

Julian Savulescu and Peter Singer

Charlie Gard should have been allowed to go to US for experimental treatment back in April (or better January when it was first considered) because there was some possibility of him having a life worth living after treatment. That possibility may have been slim, but it does not appear (to us) to have been zero. The rational strategy was to give a trial of treatment, say 3 months, and agree with family to withdraw ventilation if there was no improvement. If this had been done, we would now have some information on whether there is any prospect of improvement..

The critical quote in the judgment of Justice Francis in the High Court back in April is from the independent US expert in nucleoside replacement therapy, Dr I:

“He said that he thought that the treatment, if administered, was unlikely to be of any benefit to Charlie’s brain. He described the probability as low, but not zero.”

Dr I said that if Charlie were his patient, he would push for a trial of treatment.

Is 3 months of suffering associated with intensive care worth taking for, say, a 1/10 000 of improvement? This is a value judgement about which there is reasonable disagreement. Sadly, Charlie has experienced the pains and discomforts of intensive care for more than six months, now without any treatment with any prospect of improving his condition.

The state should not have to pay for expensive experimental treatment with low prospect of success but Charlie’s parents have raised the funds. Charlie should have been allowed to go straight away (and saved hundreds of thousands of pounds of scarce British taxpayer funds which have been used to provide months of intensive care) provided a reasonable physician would treat him in the US. Dr I appeared to be a reasonable and responsible physician.

This is not a religious or right to life argument, or an argument based on compassion. It’s a secular ethical argument about the extreme complexity of judging someone’s life to be not worth living, or judging the prospects of having a life worth living to be not worth taking. The courts have deferred to one group of doctors who are experts in the facts, but they are not experts in the ethics.

More than six months have passed since experimental therapy was first considered. We don’t know how bad Charlie’s brain damage is now. Whether experimental therapy is still warranted depends on whether there remains any prospect of any meaningful life, and how that should be balanced against further intensive care. Perhaps the moment has passed.

Professor Julian Savulescu
Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics
University of Oxford

Visiting Professorial Fellow
Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

Peter Singer, AC
Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics
University Center for Human Values
Princeton University
&
Laureate Professor, 
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies,
University of Melbourne

Charlie Gard Bibliography

Article
http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)31204-7/abstract

Blogs

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

Agreement and disagreement about experimental treatment. The Charlie Gard Appeal

The Moral of the Case of Charlie Gard: Give Dying Patients Experimental Treatment … Early

The Moral of the Case of Charlie Gard: Give Dying Patients Experimental Treatment … Early

The tragic case of Charlie Gard has captured the imagination of social media, the Pope and President Trump. All of Charlie’s legal options appear to have been exhausted so, despite the tsunami of opinion, it looks like treatment will be withdrawn, barring some act of God or other authority.

I argued back in April  and then in May that it would be reasonable to give Charlie a trial of experimental treatment for a fixed period, say 6 months. The treatment was not going to make him worse and there was a non-zero possibility of some improvement. At the end of 6 months, his progress could have been reviewed and a decision then made to withdraw treatment if no significant progress had been made. I argued that we can’t be certain that his life is not worth living and we can’t be certain treatment will lead to zero improvement. I argued that the costs – 6 months of sedation and analgesia, with limited amounts of suffering associated with medical procedures, was arguably worth taking. That course was not taken.

Worst of All Possible Worlds

Charlie was born in September 2016. He was admitted to hospital in October. By January 2017, his mother had identified an experimental treatment (nucleoside replacement therapy) available in the US.

By April 2017, the Gards had crowd-sourced £1.2million to take Charlie to the US for experimental therapy. However, a judge ruled life is not in his best interests. He must die. Numerous appeals were lodged, and lost, all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights. Now the Pope and President Trump have weighed in.

It is now over 6 months since Connie Yates , Charlie’s mother, identified and petitioned for an experimental treatment. During the whole of that time, Charlie has been ventilated in intensive care, receiving no therapy offering any prospect of improvement. If treatment had been started back in January, immediately, we would now have evidence presentable to the family, courts, media and doctors of whether it was yielding any improvement, or not.

Unless the treatment itself would have serious side-effects, or was expensive, there is no downside to it being provided, especially when Charlie is being kept alive anyway. Since the parents had raised funds to provide it themselves, there is no justice or resource allocation issue.

Not providing the experimental treatment at the outset is the very worst situation for everyone:

  1. Charlie has been kept alive since January, suffering the alleged harms of intensive care, without receiving an intervention that might lead to an improvement.
  2. His parents have had to watch their child being kept alive, without receiving the treatment they hope will have some effect.
  3. Doctors have had to keep alive a child for 6 months whom they believe is suffering and should die with dignity.
  4. Courts and the family have been denied real time real life information about whether the intervention does have any effect. They have been forced to make non-evidence based decisions.

The reasonable course of action, given the time taken by the court process, would have been to immediately start nucleoside replacement therapy at the parents’ cost (if justice precludes stricken NHS funds being used for it), while petitions to court were made to withdraw active treatment. That would have meant we would have more information about what 6 months of therapy might be able to achieve, and Charlie would have been given his fair go. It would be a better position to be in for all concerned.

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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

Cross Post: Five ways the meat on your plate is killing the planet

Cross-posted from The Conversation

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shutterstock

Francis Vergunst, Université de Montréal and Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

When we hear about the horrors of industrial livestock farming – the pollution, the waste, the miserable lives of billions of animals – it is hard not to feel a twinge of guilt and conclude that we should eat less meat. The Conversation

Yet most of us probably won’t. Instead, we will mumble something about meat being tasty, that “everyone” eats it, and that we only buy “grass fed” beef.

Over the next year, more than 50 billion land animals will be raised and slaughtered for food around the world. Most of them will be reared in conditions that cause them to suffer unnecessarily while also harming people and the environment in significant ways.

This raises serious ethical problems. We’ve compiled a list of arguments against eating meat to help you decide for yourself what to put on your plate.

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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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