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Judge overturns plea from Christain parents to move their seriously ill child on life-support to italian hospital

a life support machine

Parents of a severely disabled son have lost their appeal to send him to an Italian hospital, supported by the Vatican, after UK doctors believe his life-support machine should be switched off.

The four-year-old boy is being kept alive at London’s King’s College Hospital, where he was admitted in 2023 with a serious brain infection that triggered two heart attacks.

His parents, both Catholic, insist their child 'has awareness of what might be called beneficial or positive interactions with the world around him' and 'knows us and knows he is loved'.

But medics argue keeping him alive ‘far, far outweighs’ any benefits believing his machine should be turned off to end needless suffering.

The case is being debated between the family and the High Court’s family division after the hospital took legal action against the parents who say their son is ‘a gift from God’ and it would be 'wholly unethical to bring about his death by choice'.

But going against the family wishes, Mr Justice Poole agreed the life machine should be disconnected allowing their boy to pass away.

Poole said: 'When so much medical intervention is required to keep a child alive, there may come a point at which the burdens of that treatment outweigh its benefits to the child to such an extent that the child should be spared the treatment and those burdens even though their life will probably end sooner than if the treatments were continued.

'They are not "forced to die" but should not be "forced to live" and may be relieved of the burdens of treatment and be "allowed to die"

The judge has not allowed the parents, referred to as Mr and Mrs R, any additional time to move their child to 'a hospital associated with the Vatican' in Italy which would keep him alive on life-support, saying 'it would be equally contrary to his best interests to receive such treatment in Italy as in England.'

Poole said:  'Most decisions about withdrawing life sustaining treatment from a child are made by agreement between clinicians and parents, not by judges.

'Here, despite dialogue, good relations, and mutual respect, there is no agreement between the Trust and the parents and so, upon the Trust's application, the court is required to make decisions about NR's (the son's) treatment.

'In making those decisions, a judge puts aside their own ethical views or any religious beliefs and applies the key, well-established, legal principles.

'Mr and Mrs R gave evidence together. Their evidence was powerful.

'They told me that it had never entered their minds to terminate Mrs R's pregnancy after they had been told of NR's congenital abnormalities following scanning.

'They thought then, and think now, that NR is a gift from God. He has enhanced their lives. His life is meaningful and has given meaning to the lives of others, including them.

'They know that as parents of a severely disabled child they cannot give him the range of experiences that they could give a child without his disabilities, but they can give him unconditional love and the knowledge that they are always there for him. They regard it as wholly unethical to bring about his death by choice.

'NR continues to benefit from the unconditional love and support of his parents. Their devotion to him is deeply moving.

'The extent of his awareness of their presence and his interactions with them cannot be known with any certainty, but I accept their evidence that he can be comforted by them.

'Their dedication to him is unquestioned and many of the clinical professionals have spoken with admiration of the parents' devotion and of the skilled care they give to their son.

'Mr and Mrs R spoke powerfully to the court about how NR's life has meaning... Mrs R considers the withdrawal of life sustaining treatment to be euthanasia. They feel that it would be discrimination on the grounds of disability to grant the Trust's application. Mrs R asked me why NR should be '"forced to die"?

'These heartfelt and reasonable challenges deserve answers.

'I understand the ethical issues surrounding dilemmas of "killing" and "letting die", but in law a declaration that a particular treatment would be contrary to a child's best interests, and therefore unlawful, concerns the continuation of that treatment, not a direction to end a life. It does not permit an act of euthanasia.

'The treating clinicians...are of the view that it is in NR's best interests now to withdraw life sustaining treatment because, as Dr A put it to the court, the burdens 'far, far outweigh' any benefits.

'The law applies equally to all children, whatever the extent of their disability or illness.

'The presumption of the preservation of life is strong but, in my judgement, it is clearly displaced in this case.

'NR's life has meaning. He has brought joy to his parents and others. He has brought out the virtues of his parents: love, kindness, patience, and devoted care. 

'He has been cared for by dedicated professionals who have come to know him well. He has been known by his parents' church community and supported by his godfather. He has made his mark on the world.

'I understand his parents' concern that clinicians and others cannot see, let alone experience, the bond between NR and them. 

'But his parents' love and devotion to him is so strong that they cannot bring themselves to accept what those less personally connected to NR can see, namely that the burdens to him of treating him to keep him alive far outweigh the benefits, and that it is in his best interests for life-sustaining treatment to cease.

'Accordingly, and with great sadness, I conclude that the Trust's application should be granted and I shall declare that it would be lawful and in NR's best interests for invasive ventilation and other life-sustaining treatment to be discontinued.’

The judge concluded: 'The decision I have made is contrary to their profound beliefs and wishes, but I hope that at some point they can find some peace, knowing that they have done everything they could have done to support, love, and cherish their son.’

[ NR is allowed to be taken home before being disconnected from his life support machine if his parents so wished. ]

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