Bishop John Sherrington, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster. / Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A Catholic bishop has lamented an English appeal court ruling that life-sustaining treatment can be withdrawn from a five-year-old girl against her mother’s wishes.
The Court of Appeal upheld a High Court ruling 19 March concerning Pippa Knight, who is in a vegetative state after suffering brain damage.
Bishop John Sherrington said: “Pippa is living in a seriously disabled way due to her complex and rare medical condition. The Catholic Church teaches that every person has worth and dignity which is independent of their condition. Lack of awareness does not diminish worth.”
“The ruling to allow medics to cease Pippa’s treatment based on her quality of life or worth does not acknowledge or afford her the inherent human dignity with which she was born.”
Sherrington, a Westminster diocese auxiliary bishop and the English and Welsh bishops’ spokesman for life issues, said that he was praying for the girl’s mother, Paula Parfitt, as well as the healthcare professionals caring for her.
“We must uncompromisingly ensure that proper care is given where there is still life, despite serious illness or disability,” he commented.
“We are reminded that such care must include the provision of nutrition and hydration, by whatever means, which is neither treatment nor medicine, unless this itself becomes overly burdensome.”
Pippa was born in 2015. In December 2016, she fell ill and began experiencing seizures. Doctors diagnosed her as suffering from acute necrotizing encephalopathy, a rare form of brain damage marked by multiple bilateral lesions.
After specialists at Evelina London Children’s Hospital said they wished to end life-support treatment, the case went to the High Court, which issued its ruling on 8 January.
In a 4 February statement, the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England, described the ethical reasoning behind the High Court decision as “deeply flawed.”
In a detailed analysis of the judgment, the center’s director David Albert Jones said that the case had similarities with those of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, in which ventilation was withdrawn against their parents’ wishes.
He said that withdrawing life-sustaining treatment could be justified if it no longer serves its purpose or is “excessively burdensome.”
“On the other hand, withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment when treatment would have been beneficial and not unduly burdensome is nothing less than abandonment,” he wrote.
“Furthermore, even if withdrawal of treatment is justifiable, it is important that the decision is made for the right reasons. In the case of Pippa Knight, as in the two former cases, the ethical reasoning is deeply flawed.”
In February, Pippa’s mother asked appeal judges to overturn the ruling, arguing that her daughter should be allowed to leave the hospital and be treated at home on a portable ventilator.
Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Baker said in a written ruling: “I am entirely satisfied that the judge was entitled to conclude and declare that it was lawful and in Pippa’s best interests that life-sustaining treatment be withdrawn for the reasons he gave in his judgment.”
The two other judges who heard the appeal — Lady Justice King and Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing — expressed their agreement.
Parfitt, who is supported by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), expressed her dismay at the appeal court’s verdict.
“I am once again devastated as a result of the judgment of the Court of Appeal today, to uphold the decision that it is not in Pippa’s best interests to have a two-week trial of portable ventilation to find out whether she could come home,” she said.
“I find it inexplicable that the court and [hospital] trust will not allow Pippa to trial portable ventilation for two weeks to see if she can return home when the hospital allows Pippa to go outside for long periods on portable ventilation with no issue.”
She continued: “I will be seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. I want Pippa to have every possible chance to come home and be with her family.”
Concluding his 19 March statement, Sherrington said: “The intentional ending of the life of a critically ill patient because of a judgment made of its quality is never in the patient’s best interests. At the heart of humanity must be a call to show love and solidarity with the most vulnerable in society, and to defend the lives of our more fragile brothers and sisters who are unable to do so themselves.”
“My heartfelt prayers are with little Pippa and her mother Paula during this difficult time of suffering, as well as with those caring for Pippa. I hope that everything possible will now be done to accompany and support Pippa and her family following today’s ruling.”