Joined Siamese Twins Pose Dilemma for Catholic Parents, UK Court

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

London ( - Two British medical specialists Tuesday examined a pair of conjoined twins whom a court has ruled should be separated in order to save the life of one of them.

The parents of the three week-old twins, named Jodie and Mary by the court to preserve the family's anonymity, rejected the verdict that would result in the death of the weaker one, and appealed the ruling.

The couple, Roman Catholics from a remote part of an unnamed European country where facilities to handle such cases are non-existent, say they want nature to take its course.

Doctors have warned that a failure to separate the twins, who are joined at the abdomen and share one heart and set of lungs, will result in both of them dying in 3-6 months.

Mary is currently surviving only because she is using Jodie's heart and lungs. But the heart is reportedly showing signs of strain as a result.

Three Appeal Court judges have called for a second medical opinion, saying this would address public concerns about whether the assessment of inevitable death soon for both twins if not separated was correct; and on risks to Jodie and the chances of her survival if they were separated.

A second opinion is not expected before Friday.

The appeal judges, like the High Court judge who made the original decision, expressed deep compassion for the parents and the dilemma they face.

It is the first case of its kind to be heard in Britain.

Apart from the ethical issues, the matter has raised complex legal issues, some of which were explored again in a hearing on Tuesday.

At the heart of the legal case is the key issue of whether Mary can be legally considered "a person in being" - someone capable of independent existence. If she can, then separating the two may be legally allowed. If not, the act of separating them would be considered an assault against the weaker twin, and subsequently an unlawful killing.

The twins' parents said in a statement to an earlier court hearing that they did not believe it was "God's will" to allow one child to die in order to save the other. At the same time, recognizing the "dire prognosis without separation," they said through their lawyer they did not wish to prolong matters by active treatment.

"We have very strong feelings that neither of our children should receive any medical treatment. We certainly do not want separation surgery to go ahead as we know and have been told very clearly that it will result in the death of our daughter Mary," they said.

If the current appeal fails, the parents may take the matter to Britain's highest court or to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Catholic Church and pro-life groups have criticized the decision that would result in Mary's death.

"This judgment cannot be allowed to stand," the Pro-Life Alliance said in a statement. "The argument that the cutting off of somebody's natural blood supply does not represent direct killing is absurd. It is simply and unequivocally judicial murder."

Another pro-life group, Life, said: "The direct, deliberate killing of Mary cannot be right. Her right to life is as absolute as Jodie's.

"Doctors must treat both children as equals and do their best for both. And they must pay more attention to the parents' wishes."

A representative of the Pro-Life Alliance said Tuesday that Mary was growing, her limbs were moving, and she was showing overall signs of improvement.

"One could argue that things would be even better if she was being given more assistance. But from pictures of the two shown in court, you couldn't tell one from the other."

Earlier, a Catholic cardinal offered free medical treatment and full support for the twins in his diocese in Ravenna, in northeast Italy.

Cardinal Ersilio Tonini offered the parents an "ethical alternative," said the Pro-Life Alliance, which made an appeal for help.

It quoted Tonini, 86, as saying a "beautiful apartment" at the Opera Santa Teresa Hospital was "ready and waiting" for the girls and their parents. "Indefinite and completely free medical services and hospitality" were available for the family.

The Alliance spokesman said Tuesday it was certain the family would have been encouraged by the offer of concrete support. It was now, however, obviously awaiting the outcome of the appeal.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow