Baby Joseph's interests trump all others, ethicists say

  • March 11, 2011

Moe Maraachli kisses his son Baby Joseph. The toddler has a neurodegenerative disease and doctors say he will not recover. (Facebook Photo)TORONTO - As the Baby Joseph medical and legal drama plays out in Canadian and American media, what must not be forgotten is the toddler's best interests, say Catholic bioethicists.

The Baby Joseph saga has tugged at the hearts of many as the Maraachli family battles London Health Sciences Centre, hoping for a tracheotomy for their dying 13-month-old child and the right to bring him home to live out his final days surrounded by family and loved ones.

Baby Joseph has a neurodegenerative disease and doctors say he won't recover. He requires a breathing and feeding tube to survive. A Feb. 18 Ontario Superior Court ruling ordered the family to consent to the removal of Joseph's breathing tube on Feb. 21. The ruling confirmed the recommendations of the hospital's doctors and the Consent and Capacity Board of Ontario.

But Joseph's family defied the legal order.

Fr. Tom Lynch, a bioethicist and national director of Priests for Life Canada, says mediation between the parents and the hospital could be the best strategy at this stage, keeping in mind the “good of the child being paramount.”

Lynch says one of the bioethical questions to ask would be if the benefit of a tracheotomy would outweigh the burden or trauma on the child after performing the procedure.

“The criteria (of deciding) is always a very difficult one,” said Lynch, who teaches at St. Augustine's Seminary and sits on four different ethics committees and four hospital boards specializing in end-of-life issues.

“You try to put yourself in the person's shoes or decide in the best interests of the person.”

A tracheotomy, he said, isn't difficult, but it's getting the child to breathe which could be “traumatic” for a child with a compromised health condition.

But a difficulty with mediation is the “poisoned relationships on both sides” when the case has been played out in the court of public opinion via the media, he said.

“It's tragic. I pray for both sides and hope to see a quick resolution in the best interests of the child,” he said.

Dr. Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute in Toronto, doesn't have the full medical facts of the case, but she concurs with Lynch in saying what's important is the patient's best interests.

McQueen empathizes with those having to make difficult end-of-life decisions for loved ones.

“It's perfectly understandable that parents, husbands, wives want to keep the patient going as long as possible. We have to ask if we're doing that for ourselves or for the patient,” she said.

McQueen said when treatment isn't working for the patient, it's time to turn to “palliative care.” According to Catholic teaching, this would “rule out disproportionate or extraordinary means of care,” she said, which in this case could mean performing the tracheotomy.

“There's no black and white that the Catholic Church says you can do this or that. You have to work out every situation and have a good knowledge of the facts,” she said.

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