Conjoined Twins Case Challenges U.K. Law

The parents of conjoined twins are fighting a court ruling that the infants be separated — an operation that will save one baby but kill her sister.

Doctors say unless the girls are separated, both will die within three to six months. The infants, a pair of what is more commonly known as Siamese twins, are joined at the waist and share a heart and lungs. By the nature of their condition, only one could survive the operation.

The parents, devout Roman Catholics, say it is morally and legally wrong to sacrifice one child for the other and oppose the operation.

Doctors are challenging their decision, claiming inaction means death for both girls.

The case is making its way through the British courts as doctors, judges, ethicists, priests and parents struggle with the questions of right and wrong, life and death.

Last month, a judge ruled the operation should proceed. The parents on Monday asked the Court of Appeal in London to overturn the decision.

Jodie and Mary

The twins, known as Jodie and Mary (fictitious names assigned by the court to protect their identities), were born four weeks ago at Saint Mary’s hospital in Manchester, northwest England.

Conjoined twins are rare. The condition occurs once in every 50,000 to 100,000 births.

Jodie is the stronger of the two, and her heart and lungs support Mary. Doctors say the operation is Jodie’s only chance of surviving, as her organs can only support her sister’s body for a few more months.

‘Not God’s Will’

Jodie and Mary’s parents are from Eastern Europe and came to the United Kingdom for the babies’ birth because of the lack of medical facilities in their community.

Deeply religious, they say they cannot sanction the active killing of one child for another.

“We cannot begin to accept or contemplate that one of our children should die to enable the other one to survive,” they said in their petition to the Court of Appeal. “That is not God’s will.”

Their lawyer says they want nature to take its course, even if that means the loss of both children.

“The parent’s view is the children should be allowed to fulfill whatever life expectancy their medical condition permits,” lawyer John Kitchingman said

Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, says the parents have a right to their objection.

“I think that the separation involves the direct killing of one of the children and even though there is a good intention and a good end, that’s what I believe,” he said.

No Right Answer

Dr. Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, says there is no obviously right answer but he believes consideration should be given to the wishes of the people who will have to live with the decision.

“The courts will not have to live with the decision, the doctors won’t, but the parents will. They may well be shunned in their own community if they are perceived to have allowed one baby to be killed for the sake of the other,” he said

The three lord justices weighing the case say it raises difficult and complex issues. They must look at whether allowing the twins to be separated would amount to the unlawful killing of Mary.

They have called for a second medical opinion on the twins’ condition before deciding whether to separate the twins or observe their parents’ wishes.