By the time you read this column, Alta Fixsler may no longer be with us. Alta is a two-year-old who is severely disabled. She was put on a ventilator just about as soon as she was born prematurely, after showing no signs of life and being resuscitated by doctors. Though her parents object, Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital has now decided that her time is up. And the parents are running out of options of people to appeal to.
The Fixsler family are Hasidic Jews with Israeli citizenship, and they want to bring her to Israel, where doctors are willing to take a look and see if they can do anything for her. A charity has offered the family a free plane ride wherever they want to take her — there’s a visa for her to come to the U.S. as well. (Her father is also an American citizen.) Neither the British High Court nor the European Court of Appeals will help her mother and father do everything they can to help her. She is not expected to live long. Alistair MacDonald, a judge on the High Court, went so far as to say that Alta has no religious-liberty rights because we don’t know that Alta would share her family’s values. Alta Fixsler is two years old! Parents make those kinds of decisions for their children. Or at least that’s the way it should be.
Manchester Children’s Hospital says that Alta is in constant pain, but her parents dispute that. A judge on the High Court dismissed the opinion and observations of her parents and their rabbi, arguing that none of them were “medically qualified,” and wrote that the parents were, “inevitably, in these very difficult circumstances, subject to the flattering voice of hope.” He wrote that “Alta has and will continue to have minimal or no awareness of her family and social relationships, minimal or no ability to respond to external stimuli so as to take comfort or enjoyment from those who love her or the world around her and engage in the enlargement of knowledge of her world.” He added that “continuing life-sustaining treatment will confine Alta to being kept alive for the remainder of her life in a hospital room without windows, her life sustained by machines in a world she cannot meaningfully perceive or connect with.” Should doctors and judges be determining what makes for a meaningful life? Should parents be stripped of their rights to care for their child?
Justice MacDonald declared,
The sanctity of Alta’s life is not, within the context of the secular laws that this court must apply, absolute. It may, on the facts of an individual case, give way to countervailing factors. In short, the presumption in favour of taking all steps to preserve life, whilst strong, is also rebuttable. That this is so recognizes that life cannot be, and indeed should not be preserved at all costs.
In hearing an attempt to appeal the initial decision, the court also refused to allow Alta to be released from her hospital prison and taken off life support in Israel, because there would be “no medical benefit.” The court explained that it “acknowledged that it would enable her to spend her last days with family, that her death and burial would be in accordance with their religious beliefs, that her grave would be in Israel, and that, from the perspective of Jewish law, there would be spiritual benefits for her ending her life in that country.” Those, however, are “necessarily adult concerns.” “Whilst not spiritually optimal, it is possible to transfer Alta for burial in Israel following her death in this jurisdiction.”
In rejecting the appeal, the court further insulted their parents and the idea that they have any rights to be parents to Alta: “More fundamentally, there was no evidence that the course of action approved by the English court would be endorsed following her arrival in Israel, and that, notwithstanding the parents’ assurance that they would respect the court’s decision, it would not be surprising if that decision ‘were to be overborn by the siren call of friends and family.’ ” How dare friends and family help parents make decisions about their suffering child?
This case is tragic and cruel. There seem to be no good answers. But Britain seems to be determined to see this child die within its borders, on its timetable. They have the best of intentions: to alleviate suffering. But the doctors aren’t God. Courts aren’t, either. And while I certainly agree that there are times when palliative care is perfectly appropriate and humane, the way this is all happening is chilling. The temporal isn’t everything, and we should all be able to agree that the spiritual care of a child is well within parents’ rights.
If you are a pray-er, keep the Fixslers, all of them, in your prayers. Extreme cases like this expose our dangerous secularization that dehumanizes. If there’s a way to make a difficult situation worse, Britain has insisted on it for the suffering Fixsler family.