Catholic Archbishop: Don't Kill One Twin to Save the Other

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - As British appeals court judges Thursday continued to wrestle with the dilemma of whether to order the surgical separation of conjoined twins sharing vital organs, the senior Roman Catholic cleric in England supported the parents' plea that the two girls should be allowed to die naturally.

In a written submission to the court, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, apparently says that if separating the two led to the death of the weaker girl, Mary, then it should not take place.

Doctors have told the court that if the month-old girls are not separated, both Mary and her sister, Jodie, will die within three to six months. Mary is being kept alive by Jodie's heart and lungs. Both names have been given by the court to protect the family's identity.

The twins' parents, Catholics from an unidentified southern European country, say they do not believe it is "God's will" that the one should die in order that the other may live.

Judges, who earlier in the hearing said the case was keeping them awake at night, have heard more medical evidence as they decide whether to uphold a High Court decision that the twins should be separated in order to save Jodie's life.

Doctors reported that Mary was growing normally, but Jodie was not despite eating well. This suggested that Mary was drawing nutrition from her sister, at Jodie's expense.

If this situation continued, a lawyer for the doctors told the judges, the best time for the surgery to occur - if sanctioned by the court - would be when the girls were two months old.

Summing up the doctors' position, their attorney said: "The operation would take place in circumstances where one of the two patients would die in any event. The operation will result in a net saving of life. It is an act to provide a long and happy life for Jodie.

"Mary's short and unhappy life - if she is capable of experiencing even unhappiness - will be slightly abbreviated. To do nothing is a derogation of their duty to Jodie, which will result in the death of both."

In an unusual step, the court gave permission to the Catholic Church and a pro-life political party, the Pro-Life Alliance, to make submissions Thursday.

Church intervention in such a high profile legal case is rare in Britain. A spokesman for the Catholic Church said the submission was not being released to the press - unless the court later chose to do so.

In an earlier statement, which the spokesman confirmed still stood, Murphy-O'Connor said there was "a fundamental moral principle at stake - 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."

He also warned against the setting of a dangerous legal precedent, "that it was ever lawful to kill a person that good may come of it."

In its submission, the Pro-Life Alliance argued among other things that Mary's right to life, protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, would be violated by the operation.

The Alliance announced earlier that it had arranged with an Italian Catholic bishop for the twins and their parents to get a "safe haven" at an Italian hospital, free of charge and for as long as it was needed.

Siamese, or conjoined, twins have been separated successfully before, but much depends on the extent to which they are joined, and how advanced their respective organs are.

Just this week three-month-old Liberian twins joined at the buttocks were separated in an eight-hour operation in Columbus, Ohio.

But Jodie and Mary are a different case. Mary has no lungs or heart, and is being sustained by oxygenated blood from her sister.

The twins are joined at their lower abdomens. Their heads are at opposite ends of their joined bodies, and their legs emerge at right angles from each side.

See Earlier Story:
Conjoined Twins Pose Dilemma for Catholic Parents, UK Court (5 Sept. 2000)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow