Life for One, or Death for Both?

  • Share
  • Read Later
It's hard to imagine a sadder situation: Your daughters are born as conjoined (or Siamese) twins, and in order for one of them to live, one must die. If you refuse to take action, both children will die. That was the dilemma faced by a couple in Manchester, England, whose babies were born last month: The two girls share organs, but one infant is considered much more viable than the other. And as observant Roman Catholics the parents refuse to consider an operation to separate the babies, although doctors have advised them that without the procedure, neither twin will live more than a few months. Now the fate of the infants lies in the British courts, where the government is arguing to perform the separation — against the parents' wishes — in order to save one baby's life.

The crux of the parents' argument against the operation lies in their interpretation of the Catholic belief that it is wrong to do evil — even if that action will result in good. In other words, you cannot "murder" one child in order to save the other. But, say opponents, what if you turn that argument on its head: Isn't it evil to allow two babies to die in order to engage in the presumptive good of following religious doctrine?

The problem with couching a legal debate in religious beliefs is that while everyone is permitted to hold deep religious convictions, society as a whole tends to demand that overall law simply cannot — and should not — adapt to each person's individual mores. The twins' parents face an agonizing dilemma, and they've used their faith to make a decision. The law, however, cannot afford to take such a subjective view; the judges involved in this case must decide which of the two wrenching possibilities represents the most responsible path, both societally and legally: Standing by passively as two children die, or actively ending the life of one to save the other.

And, as befits such an ethically convoluted case, the debate looks set to rage on for the foreseeable future. While Round One ended in a victory for the state — earlier this week, a British lower court ruled the twins should be separated — second and third medical opinions will be sought. For the moment, hearings stand in recess until September 13, when further arguments will be heard. Attorneys for the parents have pledged to take the case as far as the European Court of Human Rights — whose decision, British courts have announced, will be final.