Twins’ dilemma a terrible challenge to parents, court

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, September 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — I’ve been trying to think of an appropriate analogy: Two children drowning and the parent able to save only one? Shooting a monster that has grabbed one of your children and is menacing the other, even though the shot will mean the death of the first child as well?

The reason nothing useful comes to mind is that the facts are as awful and as stark as anything I could imagine.

The British Court of Appeal ruled Friday that conjoined twins will have to be separated, even though the operation will almost certainly mean the death of one of them. The desperate parents fought unsuccessfully against the surgery.

They had come to Manchester from the Mediterranean island of Gozo when the mother was six months pregnant because they had learned that the babies were joined at the lower abdomen. They came in hope of finding a way "to give our babies the very best chance for life in the very best place."

What they found was a dilemma too cruel to contemplate. Their daughters "Jodie" and "Mary" were not merely joined but "Mary" had only a "primitive brain" and relied on her sister for heart and lung function. Separating them would kill "Mary" but give her "bright and alert" sister a real chance at survival. Leaving them conjoined would most likely mean the death of both.

But when the physicians announced plans to proceed with the separation, the Roman Catholic parents balked. They wouldn’t kill one child to save the other.

They were firmly backed by Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Catholic church at Manchester. "There is a fundamental moral principle at stake," he said. "No one may commit a wrong action that good may come of it. The parents in this case have made clear that they love both their children equally and cannot consent to one of them being killed to help the other. I believe this moral instinct is right."

Separation, the prelate insisted, would be "morally impermissible."

The distinguished Catholic ethicist J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Divinity School finds Murphy-O’Connor’s reasoning unassailable. "Traditional Catholic thought holds that ‘directly intended killing of the innocent’ is always wrong," he said. The other moral calculus, which Hehir describes as "consequentialist" or "utilitarian" — and which he personally rejects — holds that the right thing to do is to "maximize good consequences."

That seems to be the court’s rationale. A High Court judge ruled a month ago that the surgery should proceed, and the parents appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Almost as though to make the "lifeboat" dilemma more difficult, the judges were told two weeks ago that Jodie appeared not to be growing, while her sister — the one given no hope of survival — was "growing normally."

Lawyers appointed for each of the twins laid our their arguments. "Without Jodie, Mary will die," said Jodie’s lawyer. "With Mary, Jodie will die."

Mary’s lawyer countered that his client had an interest in continuing her life. "Although this is a life of short duration very severely handicapped, there is insufficient evidence that it is so intolerable as to render it in the child’s best interest that it should end."

The first of the obvious questions is the ethics class question: What would you do? Would your answer be different if you were committed to the right-to-life view and found the deliberate taking of innocent life unacceptable?

But if your answer leads you to spare Mary’s life, doesn’t that decision make you guilty of taking Jodie’s equally innocent life and Mary’s as well?

The other obvious question, in some ways more difficult, is: What should the government do? And in particular what should it do when medical science and the religion-based wishes of the parents are counterposed?

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that the decision the Appeal Court reached is the morally correct decision — quite another to concede to the three judges the right to make it.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Snohomish County Councilmembers Nate Nehring, left, and Jared Mead, speaking, take turns moderating a panel including Tulip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell during the Building Bridges Summit on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, at Western Washington University Everett in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Candidates, voters have campaign promises to make

Two county officials’ efforts to improve political discourse skills are expanding to youths and adults.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Monday, May 20

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Charles Blow: Trump remains at war with the U.S. Constitution

His threats of deportation and violence against peaceful protesters, though vague, can’t be ignored.

Choice in November is between democracy, autocracy

The country belongs to the people and in November they can choose… Continue reading

Opposing Israel’s Netanyahu isn’t antisemitic

I support the demonstrations against Israel’s Benjamin Netayahu. Counter to what the… Continue reading

Trump is being pursued in court because he can win

It is so obvious that President Biden, the Democrats and much of… Continue reading

Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks to a reporter as his 2024 gubernatorial campaign launch event gets underway in Seattle, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. ( Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)
Editorial: Recruiting two Bob Fergusons isn’t election integrity

A GOP activist paid the filing fee for two gubernatorial candidates who share the attorney general’s name.

Foster parent abstract concept vector illustration. Foster care, father in adoption, happy interracial family, having fun, together at home, childless couple, adopted child abstract metaphor.
Editorial: State must return foster youths’ federal benefits

States, including Washington, have used those benefits, rather than hold them until adulthood.

Making adjustments to keep Social Security solvent represents only one of the issues confronting Congress. It could also correct outdated aspects of a program that serves nearly 90 percent of Americans over 65. (Stephen Savage/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED SCI SOCIAL SECURITY BY PAULA SPAN FOR NOV. 26, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED.
Editorial: Social Security’s good news? Bad news delayed a bit

Congress has a little additional time to make sure Social Security is solvent. It shouldn’t waste it.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Sunday, May 19

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Eco-nomics: What it takes to take carbon out of energy

The transition to clean energy demands investment in R&D and the grid and streamlining processes.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.