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I’m happy for the ‘sanctity of life’ principle. But I long for consistency

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I’m always happy for the sanctity of life principle to be applied by our courts. Long may it continue. Photo
I’m always happy for the sanctity of life principle to be applied by our courts. Long may it continue. Photo:

There are some days in this role when the absurdity of what I hear or read makes my head hurt. I had one of those days this week.

I was reading a recent judgment from the New South Wales Supreme Court that had to do with a 16-year-old girl in NSW who was recently diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that develops in bone or soft tissue. The recommended treatment for this type of cancer is 17 cycles of chemotherapy, which would give a 50 per cent chance of a cure.

After four cycles of chemo, an MRI scan could no longer detect the cancer in the patient’s pelvis or in her lungs. The young woman’s doctor described this as a “spectacular decrease” in the size of the tumour and said that he had never seen this kind of cancer cured by only four cycles of chemotherapy, without radiotherapy or surgery.

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Still, the doctor recommended the young woman complete the full course of treatment because of the likelihood of microscopic amounts of the cancer remaining. If it grew or metastasised, it would be difficult to get rid of.

The young woman, known as AC in court documents, declined the treatment. She believed the reduction in the tumour was an answer to prayer in the form of a miraculous healing from God. She was also not interested in being separated from her friends, family and church community to undergo treatment in Sydney, nor going through the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, including potential infertility, if she had indeed been miraculously cured.

She acknowledged the unanimous medical advice that the cancer was likely still present and would continue to grow and, if it did, it would be resistant to the drugs that had already been used on her body—if it returned, it would be terminal.

She said that if the cancer did return, she would most likely seek treatment again and obviously regret her decision to not have the additional treatment now. She also believed that the return of the cancer would be God’s will and that after death, she would go to heaven to be with Jesus and so was willing to take the risk.

AC’s parents agreed with the decision. The hospital treating the young woman decided to take the matter to court, seeking a court order that AC lacked competence to make her own medical decisions, and have the court make the decision instead. The hospital needed the court order because under general legal principles, a person is allowed to refuse medical treatment, even if it would extend their life.

The judge in this case, Justice Michael Meek, delivered an interesting decision. He declared AC, now 17 years old, competent to make her own medical decisions but overrode that decision anyway. He ordered the treatment to go ahead against her will. In his decision, Justice Meek said that the sanctity of life was an important consideration that needed to be weighed in the mix of other considerations, including the medical advice, AC’s religious beliefs, her autonomy and her right to bodily integrity. It appears in AC’s situation, the “sanctity of life” was weighted so heavily that it outweighed her own wishes and her faith.

If I was advising AC, I would urge her to follow medical advice and get the recommended treatment and live as long as she could. But it strikes me as bizarre that in a state where the killing of the unborn is justified under a “my body, my choice” mantra and cancer patients similar to AC are allowed to refuse all treatment—including life-saving treatment—and opt for euthanasia instead, that the “sanctity of life” is being used as a trump card in this case.

Is it not schizophrenic to impose the “sanctity of life” in the case of a young woman who doesn’t want to die but who will accept death as a result of her decision, but to not do the same for another young cancer sufferer who wants to opt for lethal drugs?

Also, I wonder if AC’s faith worked against her. If she wasn’t herself a person committed to the sanctity of life, would a judge be able to get away with using it as a principle to force medical treatment against her will? If faced with an atheist patient, I am not sure a judge would even try it on.

I’m always happy for the sanctity of life principle to be applied by our courts. Long may it continue. I just wish they would apply it more consistently.

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