Baby Isaiah should be allowed to die

In late October, a boy was born in Rocky Mountain House. His umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and, by the end of the 40-hour labour, the baby needed to be flown to Edmonton to be placed in neonatal intensive care. Over two months passed before doctors determined that the boy — Isaiah James May — had severe oxygen debt during his delivery and would be permanently damaged. With that, the doctors sent a letter to the Mays, informing them that Isaiah would be taken off of life support within a week.

That was in January; Isaiah is still on life-support. His parents challenged the doctors’ decision in court and the judge decided that additional time was permitted for an independent assessment of Isaiah by a specialist not related to the hospital. Dr. Richard Taylor from Victoria performed the examination last Friday; the case will go back to court on March 11.

This case is unique not because Isaiah’s situation is so rare — the fact that there is a neonatal intensive care unit means that birth-related problems occur at least occasionally. Presumably a number of cases occur every year where a baby is on life support and is taken off of it because the chances of becoming a functional person are too small to warrant letting the baby develop. What makes Isaiah’s case unique is that his parents challenged the hospital and the judge agreed that a second opinion was appropriate.

Rosanna Saccomani, the Mays lawyer, is making the case that the Mays are simply looking for answers and that is what’s justifying Isaiah staying on life-support. She has stated that questions surround the circumstances of the birth: for instance, why did the labour last 40 hours, instead of the doctors in Rocky Mountain House performing a Caesarian section? The Mays have also told the press that Isaiah is making progress, that he is doing things that the doctors said he wouldn’t ever be able to do.

Some points are worth making. A second doctor differing in opinion regarding a complex case shouldn’t be considered vindication for those who think Isaiah should live. Both doctors are basing their cases on the evidence at hand. If Isaiah stays on life support and doesn’t develop to the extent the doctor expected, will he then be removed? If he manages to improve in one area, so he doesn’t require life-support, but he diminishes in others or is found to be in terrible pain, what will happen then?

The Edmonton doctors waited a full two months to assess his condition, so it’s not the case that the decision was rushed or based on insufficient evidence. Much is riding on Dr. Taylor, the Victoria physician, to determine the next legal move. If he concurs with the Edmonton doctors, then will the Mays concede? They probably won’t have a choice, because the judge for the case will have little reason to prolong the decision.

It’s a terrible thing to have a child die. No one should hold the Mays responsible thus far, because there is still a chance — albeit small — that the doctors have overlooked something and Isaiah will be able to lead a meaningful life after all. There are doubts, however, that those who wish Isaiah to be kept on life-support will agree with both doctors. But they are wrong. Quality of life is a necessary consideration in such cases. Even if Isaiah can survive without life-support, his quality of life will likely be so low that it would be better for him to not have to endure it. Of course, it shouldn’t be completely up to the doctors to draw the line for where quality of life is sufficiently high, but the parents aren’t in the position to make that choice any better.

It’s unclear why Saccomani, the Mays lawyer, thinks the circumstances of the birth and Isaiah’s supposed right to be kept on life-support are connected. If the doctors in Rocky Mountain House should have performed a C-section, and thereby could have prevented the oxygen deficit, then this is a matter that certainly deserves inquiry. But the only commonality is that it was the same baby and the same parents. Whether or not the doctors could have done otherwise does nothing to change Isaiah’s circumstances now. If his life chances are sufficiently low, he should be allowed to die.

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