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Archie Battersbee and the limits of law

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Medical law A courtroom is no place for families and clinical teams to reach a consensus

There is no word in the English language for a parent who has lost a child. We have widows and orphans, but nothing equivalent for the cruellest of bereavements. Is it because it is a fear or a horror that transcends description; or just something we cannot bear to contemplate?

This week we have all been reminded that such tragedies do occur by the court battle to determine whether Archie Battersbee, a 12-year-old boy from Essex with a catastrophic brain injury, should be taken off life support. His doctors insisted that he was brain-stem dead; his family insisted that this was not definitive and want his life to be preserved. It was a minus sum game with no possible winners.

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A consistent feature of these thankfully rare cases is a tendency to go to law. Clinical teams have to make tough decisions with cold objective data, parents will fight like tigers for a grain of hope that their child might recover. Both positions are understandable, but a courtroom is no place to reach a consensus. We might baulk at Archie’s mother’s description of the withdrawal of life support as a ‘choreographed execution’, but we can understand the intolerable mental pressure that took her there. The exploitation of these cases by religious zealots, which often lead to threats against clinicians are less forgivable.

Something should change, and there is much to welcome in the recent suggestion by Lady Finlay, a crossbench peer and professor of palliative medicine, that the government is considering an inquiry into different ways of handling such cases, such as independent mediation. It cannot square every circle, but may help to ease the unbearable, however slightly.

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