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Doctors v Parents: Charlie Gard

The recent case of Charlie Gard puts into sharp focus the relationship between parents, doctors and the courts in relation to the treatment of children.

Charlie Gard is an eleven-month-old baby being cared for at Great Ormond Street Hospital. He is unable to breathe unaided or move his arms or legs. Charlie has a very rare inherited disease causing a reduction of mitochondrial DNA (the messaging system within the energy-producing units of each cell). The doctors at Great Ormond Street feel that they are no longer serving Charlie’s best interests by keeping him alive.

A doctor in the United States is prepared to give medical treatment, although this is still experimental. The £1.3 million required for this treatment has been raised through crowd funding. The doctors at Great Ormond Street have considered the same treatment but felt after Charlie suffered seizures, it was no longer appropriate due to the brain damage that had already occurred.

Charlie’s case has been taken through both the UK courts and to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. In the court hearing, it was agreed that even if the treatment were successful, the brain damage that he had sustained would not be reversed. The parents of Charlie are mounting the latest stage of their fight at a hearing in the Family Division of the High Court having already lost battles in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court in London.

The current law states that doctors are not required to provide treatment which they consider to be against a patient’s best interests. Historically, the courts must weigh up conflicting views from both parents and doctors in relation to treatment in order to determine what is in the child’s best interests.

It has been argued by Charlie’s parents and lawyers that, whilst viable treatment has been proposed elsewhere, the state cannot interfere unless the child was put at risk of significant harm.

Whilst the legal battle continues, doctors have been forced to keep Charlie alive providing him treatment which they believe is futile and causing him suffering.

The decision to treat patients is often very simple. It is the issues in relation to the non-treatment of patients who cannot consent that remains a difficult and futile area.