Doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital have strongly criticised religious parents who refuse to agree to the withdrawal of medical treatment from their critically ill children.
They said fundamentalist Christians with African roots were a particular problem because they expressed “expectation of miraculous intervention”.
The doctors are calling for a review of the legal system so that parents’ religious beliefs carry less weight.
But a legal expert from Oxford University has accused the doctors of reducing children’s best interests to essentially medical criteria.
Charles Foster said the doctors “seem to think that because we are becoming an increasingly ‘secular society’ there is some sort of democratically ordained mandate to impose secular values on everyone.”
The doctors raised their concerns in a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME), entitled: “Should religious beliefs be allowed to stonewall a secular approach to withdrawing and withholding treatment in children”.
They said faith was a vital support for parents but criticised religious beliefs for increasingly being allowed to “stonewall” medical opinion to withdraw treatment from children.
The study by two doctors from the Neonatal and Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Great Ormond Street Hospital and a hospital chaplain, examined 203 cases at the unit over three years in which parents were advised to withdraw medical treatment.
In 17 cases parents insisted on continuing treatment. In eleven of these, religion was cited as the major factor influencing the decision but some were resolved after involving religious leaders.
Commenting on the report, Dr David Jones, director of Anscombe Bioethics Centre said: “It is difficult to imagine the situation where a parent faces losing a child and it is understandable that many parents are unwilling to let go. This is true whether a parent has faith or not.
“In a third of cases of difficulty noted in the report, religious faith did not play any explicit role. It is not, therefore, a uniquely religious problem, but a question of how best to find agreement about what is in the child’s best interests.”
He added: “We should be wary of changing the balance of the law on the basis of such a few cases where, partly because of issues of cultural diversity and lack of availability of ‘religious community leaders’, agreement has not been able to be reached.”