VANCOUVER — The rights of children in need of potentially life-saving medical treatment should trump any rights of their parents, a lawyer argued yesterday in a case involving blood transfusions given to four surviving sextuplets.
George Copley, who represents B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney-General, told a provincial Supreme Court hearing that in a medical emergency the principles of fundamental justice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should protect children’s lives instead of the parents’ right to liberty.
“Surely where the life and health of the child is more immediately engaged, that is medical emergency care, then it’s more compelling to prefer the child’s right to life and health than to prefer the parents’ rights, whatever they might be,” he said.
The babies were born at B.C. Children’s Hospital on Jan. 7, almost four months premature. Two of them died within weeks while four others — two boys and two girls — survived.
Mr. Copley was in court along with a lawyer for the Ministry of Children and Family Development and lawyers for the parents of Canada’s first sextuplets, who cannot be named under a publication ban.
The parents did not give doctors consent to transfuse the premature babies because the couple are Jehovah’s Witnesses and their religious beliefs prohibit such intervention, even to save a life.
Their lawyer, Shane Brady, has argued that fundamental justice was denied to his clients and that the seizure of their children was a breach of the Charter.
Mr. Brady, who is also a Witness, has said the government should not have seized the babies without giving the parents a judicial hearing.
But Mr. Copley said it’s impractical for hearings involving complex Charter issues to be held so quickly without jeopardizing children’s lives when they need immediate medical treatment.
Other provinces have taken several months to six years in one case for hearings involving children seized for blood transfusions, Mr. Copley said.
Margot Fleming, a lawyer for the Children’s Ministry, said the government’s actions put the children’s welfare before the parents’ religious beliefs.
“No child should ever be put at risk of severe physical harm or death,” Ms. Fleming told the court. Ms. Fleming noted that the parents’ lawyer does not acknowledge there was any medical emergency requiring immediate action. “When would he accept, or the parents accept, that these infants were in urgent need of blood transfusions?”
The hemoglobin levels of at least two of the babies had dropped to dangerously low levels when doctors transfused them as urgent cases when they were between three and four weeks old, she said.
One of the children was no longer feeding and may have been suffering from an intestinal infection as his hemoglobin level rapidly declined, Ms. Fleming said.
Mr. Brady has said he wants to cross-examine the doctors and social workers involved in the decision to transfuse the children.
Chris Christensen, a former Witness from Lac du Bonnet, Man., said outside court that he attended yesterday’s hearing because he doesn’t agree with the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada’s stand on blood transfusions.
The society, based in Georgetown, Ont., speaks for members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect and sets policies for them to follow.
On Aug. 31, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the father of a teenage Witness who refused blood transfusions can proceed with legal action.
Calgary resident Lawrence Hughes alleged lawyers, including Mr. Brady, for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada counselled his daughter Bethany to refuse transfusions necessary to treat her leukemia.
The 17-year-old died in September, 2002.