14 Jun 2008

Sextuplet parents lose court battle over B.C. baby seizures

CBC News - Canada
June 13, 2008

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, according to a B.C. Supreme Court judgment released Friday.

In his ruling, Chief Justice Donald Brenner said the seizure of the four surviving infants for blood transfusions — contrary to their parents' religious beliefs — was medically necessary to either save the children's lives or keep them from harm.

"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 then 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.

Blood transfusions unnecessary: parents

The couple, who can't be named, claimed the transfusions weren't necessary to save the babies' lives, and argued the seizure breached their constitutional rights.

Shane Brady, the lawyer for the 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.

Babies needed blood infusions: doctors

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. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen.

Brenner noted that more studies are underway that may establish it's safe to allow an infant's hemoglobin level to go below 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 Jan. 27 was medically necessary."

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

Brenner disagreed with that argument as well.

"Given the short-fused nature of these proceedings … [and] 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.

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