June 14, 2008

Parents of Sextuplets Given Blood Lose Their Religious Court Fight


VANCOUVER - A B.C. court says a child's right to life trumps a parent's charter right to guide their medical treatment in the case of four sextuplets taken from their Jehovah's Witness parents.

B.C. Supreme Chief Justice Donald Brenner has ruled that seizing the four surviving infants to administer blood transfusions, contrary to their parents' religious beliefs, was medically necessary.

"It is difficult to see how the charter rights of the parents, which they say entitle them to determine the course of medical treatment for their children in this case, could trump the (section) 7 charter rights of the infants to receive medical treatment to prevent their serious personal injury or death," Brenner concluded in a judgment released Friday.

Two of the six babies died shortly after they were born in Vancouver's Children's Hospital in January 2007, and the remaining four were taken into the custody of the province to be given the transfusions. A prohibition against blood transfusions is a tenet of the Jehovah's Witness faith.

Shane Brady, the lawyer for the unnamed couple, told the court during a hearing last February there was no medical emergency requiring a blood transfusion for these children.

"The children's vital signs were within the acceptable range," he said.

Brady brought in expert witnesses to say that new medical treatment showed the children would not have needed medical intervention.

Each baby was returned to the parents shortly after receiving its blood transfusion, but the parents followed through with an appeal to the B.C. Supreme Court.

Brenner pointed out in his ruling that he had no real remedy to offer the parents.

"Even if I were to conclude that the lower courts erred..., I could not grant any meaningful remedy with respect to the blood transfusions," he wrote in his ruling.

Physicians who testified on behalf of the government said they believed the children's hemoglobin levels were dangerously low and that the children needed infusions of blood.

Brenner noted that more studies are underway that may establish it's safe to allow an infant's hemoglobin level to go under the currently accepted threshold, but until that happens he said doctors in the sextuplet case made the right decision.

"In this case it is apparent the health of these babies was extremely compromised. I accept the evidence of Drs. Smyth, Soliman and Whyte that the blood transfusion administered to (baby) E on January 27 was medically necessary."

The parents claimed the court acted unfairly by rushing the hearing in a location away from their home.

Brenner disagreed again with that argument.

"Given the short-fused nature of these proceedings ... the traditional procedural fairness criteria in circumstances where children are at risk of imminent death or serious or permanent injury, formal rules around venue should be capable of relaxation."

Brady said at the time of the hearing that the four surviving children were all healthy after passing their first year, considered a milestone for premature babies.