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Human Rights Court turns down plea of Charlie Gard's parents
Doctors are to be allowed to turn off the life support system of baby Charlie Gard after the European Court of Human Rights refused to accept an application by his parents challenging the treatment of his case by the UK courts.
Charlie, now aged 10 months, suffers from a rare and fatal genetic disease that causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage. His parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, had contested all the way to the UK Supreme Court proceedings by Great Ormond Street Hospital, London to have it declared that it would be lawful to withdraw artificial ventilation and provide Charlie with palliative care only. The parents argued that it would be in his best interests to undergo experimental treatment in the USA, though experts have said it could not reverse his structural brain damage. The domestic courts ruled in favour of the hospital because it was likely that Charlie would suffer significant harm if his present suffering was prolonged without any realistic prospect of improvement, and the experimental therapy would be of no effective benefit.
Yesterday a chamber of seven judges in the Strasbourg court, by a majority, endorsed in substance the approach by the domestic courts and declared the application inadmissible. The decision is final, and the court also lifted its interim order preventing withdrawal of treatment.
Before the court, Charlie’s parents had argued that the hospital had blocked access to life sustaining treatment (in the USA), infringing the article 2 right to life, as well as his article 5 right to liberty and security. They further alleged under articles 6 (right to a fair trial) and 8 (right to respect for private and family life) that the domestic court decisions amounted to an unfair and disproportionate interference in their parental rights.
The court said it bore in mind the wide margin of appreciation left to the authorities in the sphere concerning access to experimental medication for the terminally ill and in cases raising sensitive moral and ethical issues. It could not substitute itself for the competent domestic authorities. It gave weight to the fact that a domestic legal framework – compatible with the Convention – was available governing both access to experimental medication as well as withdrawal of life sustaining treatment.
Furthermore, the domestic court decisions had been meticulous, thorough and reviewed at three levels of jurisdiction with clear and extensive reasoning giving relevant and sufficient support for their conclusions. The domestic courts had direct contact with all those concerned and had heard extensive expert evidence as well as Charlie’s parents themselves and an independent professional appointed as the child’s guardian. They had concluded that it was most likely Charlie was being exposed to continued pain, suffering and distress and that undergoing experimental treatment with no prospects of success would offer no benefit, and continue to cause him significant harm.
The court's written reasons are awaited.