Parents of 2-year-old girl await UK Supreme Court response on removing life-support against their wishes
Middlesex Guildhall in London, England, home of the UK Supreme Court. / Via Shutterstock.
London, England, Aug 3, 2021 / 08:30 am (CNA).
The parents of a two-year-old girl are waiting to see if Britain’s Supreme Court will hear their challenge to a ruling that life-sustaining treatment can be withdrawn from their daughter against their wishes.
The Court of Appeal upheld a High Court decision on July 9 that doctors could remove life-support treatment from Alta Fixsler, who suffered severe brain damage at birth.
The case has drawn international scrutiny as her parents are Israeli citizens and her father also holds U.S. citizenship.
Hospitals in Israel and the U.S. have offered to treat the two-year-old and U.S. senators have intervened in the case.
Alta’s parents, who are Hasidic Jews, moved to the U.K. in 2014. Their daughter was born on Dec. 23, 2018, eight weeks premature and with a severe hypoxic-ischemic brain injury.
The Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, which has treated Alta since birth using mechanical ventilation and a feeding tube, applied to the High Court after her parents disagreed with its proposal to withdraw life-sustaining treatment and transfer the child to palliative care.
Doctors believe that Alta has no chance of recovery and suffers from consistent pain, while her parents do not agree that she is in consistent pain and say that as Hasidic Jews they consider the sanctity of life to be a fundamental tenet.
A High Court judge ruled on May 28 that it was “not in the best interests of Alta for life-sustaining medical treatment to be continued.”
The Court of Appeal judge dismissed the parents’ appeal, saying that the High Court judge had “applied the proper test of a child’s best interests.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced on July 2 that he had secured a visa for Alta, enabling her to travel to the U.S. to receive treatment.
Schumer had written to Karen Pierce, the British ambassador to the U.S., asking that “all health decisions that are against the wishes of the family be suspended” until the citizenship process was complete and the child could travel to the U.S.
New Jersey senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez also wrote to the ambassador, saying that the state’s Phoenix Center for Rehabilitation and Pediatrics in Wanaque was prepared to treat Alta.
Ten Republican senators, led by Marco Rubio (R-FL), wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden on June 21, saying that they were “profoundly troubled” by the case.
“It is unconscionable that the British government is usurping the role of parents and disregarding the sincere religious objections of the family,” they said, urging Biden to raise the issue with the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In a July 23 letter to Rubio, Naz Durakoğlu, the Acting Assistant U.S. Secretary of State, said that U.S. officials had highlighted their concerns with the U.K. government.
“As you may be aware, the U.S. Embassy in London has issued a non-immigrant visa for Alta in the event that she is discharged and her parents choose to transport her to the United States for further treatment,” the letter said.
The BBC reported that a spokesman for the U.K. Foreign Office said that it was up to the courts to decide the matter, independently of the government.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has appealed to Prince Charles to help the family take their daughter to Jerusalem for treatment.
“Their religious beliefs directly oppose ceasing medical treatment that could extend her life and have made arrangements for her safe transfer and continued treatment in Israel,” he wrote.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America, said that the charity United Hatzalah Air had offered to fly Alta out of the U.K.
“Sparing Alta’s life would not cost the U.K.’s National Health Service a farthing,” he commented in a July 29 article for the Religion News Service.
U.K. courts have heard a series of cases in recent years in which doctors have sought to remove life-sustaining treatment from children against parental wishes.
In March, the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that doctors could remove life-support treatment from a girl who was in a vegetative state after suffering brain damage. Her mother had opposed the doctors’ proposal. Following the court decision, Pippa Knight died in May at the age of six.
David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England, noted that there were parallels between the Pippa Knight case and those of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, in which ventilation was withdrawn against their parents’ wishes.
Pope Francis offered public support to the families of both Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans amid international outcries over the cases.
Fr. Patrick Pullicino, a U.K.-based neurologist who was ordained as a Catholic priest in 2019, told CNA that he could not comment on the specifics of the case as he dealt with adult end-of-life situations and was not a pediatrician.
But he said: “I do feel that ‘best interest’ used by the courts is in fact a transmission of the subjective views of those that use it, of their value of the life of disabled individuals.”
“We do need to push for legislation that allows the patient or their next of kin to transfer them to another hospital in this or another country should they be willing and able to provide life-saving treatment, regardless of any perceived ‘best interest’ determination by third parties.”