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Archie Battersbee: How the Court Reached its Conclusion

Mother of Archie Battersbee, Hollie Dance, outside the high court in London, England.
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

London’s high court has heard the tragic case of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee, who suffered severe brain damage after an accident at his home in Southend, Essex, in early April.

On Monday, Mrs Justice Arbuthnot concluded that Archie was brain dead and that treatment should cease. His parents disagree and are planning an appeal.

There have been other cases where parents or family members have not accepted a medical diagnosis of brain death. In the UK, courts have always concluded that treatment should stop. However, one difference in Archie’s case is that the standard tests for brain death were not possible. The judge relied in part on a test (an MRI brain scan) that is not usually used.

How death is determined

In the UK, there are no laws that say what death is or how it should be determined. Instead, the diagnosis of death is made by doctors based on a code of practice. It defines death as the irreversible loss of both the capacity for consciousness and the capacity to breathe. Doctors can diagnose a patient as having died either where the patient’s heartbeat and breathing have stopped, or where there is evidence of irreversible cessation of brain stem functioning.

The brain stem is an area at the junction of the brain and the spinal cord. It contains crucial nerve centres for controlling basic functions, including those that control breathing and awareness.

Patients can have severe brain damage without damage to the brain stem. But if the brain develops very severe swelling, parts of the upper brain can end up squashing and destroying the brain stem. Breathing machines in intensive care can sometimes keep the body going, even when this has happened. When doctors observed this in the 1960s (at the start of modern intensive care), that led to the recognition of the concept of “brain death”.

There are strict medical criteria that are used for testing patients in intensive care suspected of being brain dead. Those involve careful testing of reflexes that arise from the brain stem. But they also include rules and procedures to make sure that no conditions present might alter the results of brain stem tests. For example, the patient’s body temperature must be above 34℃. And they shouldn’t be receiving any medicines that would sedate them or stop them from moving.

Not diagnosed in the usual way

In Archie’s case, brain stem testing, according to the UK code of practice, was not possible because when he was tested with a “peripheral nerve stimulator”, his muscles did not respond.

The UK doctors who examined Archie could not diagnose brain death in the usual way. But the code of practice allows other tests to be used where standard testing is not possible. These extra tests may, for example, show that the blood supply to the brain has stopped (if there is no blood going to the brain, there is no possibility of brain function). Or they may show an absence of electrical activity.

In Archie’s case, he had repeated brain scans. On April 15, a magnetic resonance angiogram showed no blood flow in any of the blood vessels in the brain. This was also seen in a repeat CT scan of the brain on May 11 and in another MRI on May 31. The scans also showed visible evidence of necrosis (death) of part of the brain stem.

Electric tracings of the brain showed no activity on April 14 and 20.

Ethical questions

There are two ethical questions that we might ask about cases like that of Archie. The first question is whether he is legally dead. Can we be confident that he has irreversibly lost the capacity for breathing and consciousness? That is the key question in the UK.

The rules set out by the code of practice in the UK allow for testing, including MRIs to be used in difficult cases. Extra tests all confirm the picture. He has suffered devastating brain damage, including very severe damage to his brain stem.

Even if life-support measures were continued, there is sadly no prospect of Archie regaining consciousness or the ability to breathe. He has been examined by several doctors and the evidence has been carefully evaluated in court. There is good reason to think that Archie has indeed died according to the UK code of practice.

But the second, perhaps more important, question is why it matters whether or not Archie is legally dead.

Although it can be incredibly difficult for family members to accept, and though they might wish the machines to keep going, in UK law, once a patient has been diagnosed as brain dead, there is no question of treatment continuing. So the significance of Archie being legally dead is that the dispute about treatment should end.

And even if the appeal court were to decide that Archie is technically still alive, that does not mean that treatment will continue as his parents wish.

Where there is disagreement about medical treatment for living children (or adults) with severe brain injury, there is a legal process for making decisions in the court based on their best interests. In Archie’s case, the judge had carefully considered Archie’s wishes as well as his parents’ views and the evidence that they had obtained from other experts.

In Archie’s best interests

The judge listened to evidence from several medical experts testifying to the devastating nature of his brain damage. She concluded that if he were alive, it would be in Archie’s best interests to stop the life support machines that are supporting him.

Although he is no longer capable of feeling pain (or indeed anything), she found that his body was suffering physical harm from the treatments he was needing to receive, that “his prospects of recovery are nil”, and that the burdens outweighed the benefits of continued treatment. The courts have reached similar conclusions in other cases.

The legal dispute over Archie’s care might continue for some time yet. However, just as there is no realistic prospect that he will recover, there is no likelihood that the appeal courts will reach a different decision. The conclusion for Archie, sadly, appears foregone.The Conversation

Dominic Wilkinson, Consultant Neonatologist and Professor of Ethics, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. This issue has risen in the U.S.. Many times, with many patients. Although not an attorney, nor able to fully research the questions, I don’t think the matter is well-settled, nor may it ever be. As a practical matter, rulings are made, case-by-case—probably the kindest course, although I am sure many affected will disagree. Ethically speaking, life or death decisions are—will be— contentious. This is not, strictly speaking, an area for law to adjudicate.
    But this is what we have when loved ones or other interested parties disagree. People continue to want to believe in miracles. Those are the stuff of faith , hope and metaphysics. There are, we know, questions for which there are no answers. This is one of them, seems to me.

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  3. According to law in our country, the physicians are responsible for the health care that is urgent/acute. Neither the members of family nor the courts are entitled to decide about it.
    As for the ethical point the care that only vainly prolongate the pacient’s suffering is considered to be wrong.

    Generally these cases show how difficult our post-modern era is. Due to technological progress the boundaries that were apparent are recenty liquid.
    That applies for things like sex, parents, working time, richness and powerty and also for death and life or health and illness.

    The definition of life was clear. No more it is today. The definition of health was also clear. But instead of this nowadays we use the word “fitness”. To be healthy can be defined.
    But to be fit is quite unclear. This concept has no limits. As we can hear in lot of commercials: “For even more pleasure”……
    As being fit has no ends also being alive can be endless. But is this the correct approach? Does this makes us happy?

    This unclearness is the reason why the courts has to be involved in such cases.
    And as apostle Pauline says in the Epistle to Corithians: It is your fault that you have courts between you.

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  6. Many thanks for writing this article. I went out for breakfast this morning and saw a blond haired boy of a similar age and my thoughts turned to Archie. However, I now understand the situation and the scientific medical argument behind this decision. Sadly beautiful Archie cannot recover and my heart goes out to his family for their tragic loss. It is reassuring to know the processes the medical profession need to go through in reaching such difficult decisions.

  7. Elizabeth O'Hara-Fisher

    Thank you for clarifying. I live in the US, and having worked in a Pediatric Hospital I kept wondering– “is he brain dead?” The Guardian (which I read and like) never seemed to state anything about brain death. As a chaplain, I watched many children taken of a ventilator after doctors performed tests and then called the patient “legally dead.” Just because a body’s heart is beating due to a vent does not mean they are alive. We would usually give the family time to get together, sit at the bedside, and pray. Many times the family would choose to be an organ donor, since donation could often save lives. It astonishes me that all I read in the newspaper was he was “being taken off life support,” with no explanation about brain death. I fear other families will read this article and be terrified.

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