Family judges sometimes have to make agonising choices in respect of the medical treatment of sick children, even if that means going against their parents’ wishes. Exactly that happened in a case in which a couple fervently believed that their dangerously ill daughter could be cured by the power of prayer.
The little girl, who was less than two years old, had been born with end stage renal failure. It was hoped that she would in due course be fit enough to undergo a kidney transplant but, in the meantime, she needed surgery under general anaesthetic to insert a central line so that she could be treated by haemodialysis.
The operation would entail various risks, including that the girl would suffer a stroke. However, the doctor in charge of her treatment viewed it as her only real chance of survival. The sole other option was palliative care that would permit her to die comfortably and with dignity, probably within a matter of weeks.
The girl’s parents were people of profound, deep and simple faith and opposed the operation on the basis that their daughter was a gift from God and that her survival depended entirely on the power of prayer. In those circumstances, the NHS trust that bore responsibility for the girl’s care sought a family judge’s guidance.
In ruling on the matter, the judge noted that the parents both suffered from mental health difficulties. He was, however, satisfied that their objection to the operation was predicated on the strength and vibrancy of their faith. Arguments in favour of and against the operation were evenly balanced and the judge noted that it was hard to imagine a more onerous question for the Court to address.
Noting that it was ultimately for the Court to decide where the girl’s best interests lay, the judge sanctioned the operation. Whilst the parents’ views deserved utmost respect, the evidence indicated that their daughter wanted to fight for survival and it was her needs that had to drive the decision. The judge noted that, if the operation failed or the girl’s condition changed for the worse, the trust could return to Court with the overall objective of preventing her suffering.