Treatment or Torture?


A recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME) once again brings to light the contentious relationship between religion and medicine.  More specifically, is it ethical for parents to subject their terminally ill child to aggressive therapies and continued suffering when medical professionals agree that such treatments are futile.

Doctors and researchers at Great Ormond Street Hospital in the UK, the sponsor of the JME study analyzing  end  of life decision-making,  contend that “spending a lifetime attached to a mechanical ventilator having every bodily function supervised and sanitized by a carer or relative, leaving no dignity or privacy to the child or adult has been argued as inhumane. ”  Conversely, parents believe that they have the right to determine the appropriate course of therapy for their child and frequently cite religious beliefs as the basis of their decision that intensive care should continue to allow for divine intervention and miraculous recovery.

A recent article on this topic highlights two sides of the coin.  Charles Foster, a legal expert at the University of Oxford, argues that “no beliefs, religious or secular, should be allowed to stonewall the best interests of the child.”  However, Dr. Steve Clarke, of the institute of Science and Ethics, believes doctors are in no position to definitively confirm that miracles never happens and doctors should do more to frame the end of life decision making within the construct of the parents’ religion.

Going forward, policy makers may utilize fodder from the JME article to pursue legal policy which accepts the Great Ormond Street Hospital researchers’ recommendation that the legal system in the UK should be overhauled to reduce the weight given to parents’ religious beliefs in such cases. However, parents have a right to guide the care of their child in accordance with their belief system, and the agony of a terminally ill child should not be compounded by the lack of parental oversight in their care decisions.


2 Responses to “Treatment or Torture?”

  1. hwang12 Says:

    I can’t even imagine how difficult this type of dilemma would be for parties involved in situations like this. As an MD whose background is in health econ and outcomes research, part of me considers the quality of life of the child and the economic impact to the health system. But as a mother of a toddler, I feel painfully distraught at even the thought of “letting go.” At this point in time, I ultimately would agree with the opinion of Foster, that the best interests of the child are paramount.

  2. anitha67 Says:

    This is a sensitive subject especially as it involves the care of children. The interesting thing about pediatrics is that oftentimes decision-making is a family affair, and particularly for a terminally ill child or therapy involving great risk, since the family makes the decision, if something goes wrong the entire family feels the guilt. It’s also interesting to note the role culture, and not just religion, plays in such critical decisions. There was a recent case I came across where a chronically ill child was rejected by the family and this may have been due to a cultural belief that if a child is meant to die then one must accept it, and therefore there is no pressure to treat so that life is sustained. In contrast however, there was a case where ChildLife had to intervene on a terminally ill child where the family had to let the child know that it was okay to die and they would be fine, as the child was clinging to life because the child thought that the family was hurting.

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