A UK judge has ruled that a 7-year-old boy with a life-threatening brain tumor must have surgery despite his mother’s refusal to give consent.
The child in question, Neon Roberts, had a tumor removed last year. His mother, New Zealand-born Sally Roberts, 37, had refused to allow Neon to undergo radiation therapy, insisting it might cause her son long-term damage. However, when doctors discovered that Neon required urgent surgery in order to remove the tumor’s sizable regrowth, Sally Roberts — though having initially consented — also refused the surgery.
Mr Justice Bodey for the High Court ruled on Tuesday that, because of the urgency surrounding the treatment, he believed there was reason to overrule Neon’s mother’s wishes. He ordered that Neon Roberts should undergo the treatment as soon as possible and Neon was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday.
Mr Justice Bodey said expert evidence showed Neon had a residual cancer growth larger than 1.5 sq cm.
Mrs Roberts told the court she wanted opinions from more doctors: “I feel I need more expert opinion on it before proceeding.”
The judge rejected arguments that the newly found growth could have been inflamed scar tissue from the last procedure.
Mr Justice Bodey said no-one could fail to be sympathetic with Neon’s mother.
But he added that, in such a case of such extreme urgency, further delay would only postpone difficult decisions and “we do not have the luxury of time”.
Sally Roberts, who had been locked in a bitter legal dispute with her estranged husband over Neon’s treatment, previously absconded with her son for four days, fearing that she would be forced to let Neon have surgery. Roberts later came forward, apologizing and saying that she only wanted to protect her son from harm.
The case itself is not unprecedented as far as British legal history goes. Indeed, there have been a number of cases where judges have been called upon to discern whether children should undergo life-saving treatment which their parents oppose on matters of religion or community taboo.
However, Sally Roberts refusal to allow her son to undergo radiation therapy against the wishes of the child’s father, and her subsequent going into hiding with Neon, forced the judge into the almost unprecedented move of releasing not only details about the case but Neon’s photograph in a public plea to find the boy.
Sally Roberts’ fears over the surgery are not completely unfounded. It is estimated there is a 16 to 25 percent risk that the surgery could leave Neon mute. Without the surgery, however, Neon would almost certainly die and, according to his doctors, within months if not weeks.
Roberts reportedly told the court she believed British medical experts had attempted to scare her into consenting to the surgery, saying she wanted opinions from medical experts from other countries to be sure the surgery was necessary.
Roberts, despite receiving a second opinion from medical experts and their expressing a consensus that the treatment was necessary, said she remained unconvinced. ”I still believe there are many more things on the planet that could help sort that boy out rather than chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” she is quoted as saying.
While there are provisions under British law for assessing whether children, those under 16, are able to consent to such surgery, they are not lightly invoked and overruling parents’ wishes is not something the British legal system takes likely. As such, this case has raised questions regarding how far parental rights extend and when a child’s right to life takes over.
Justice Bodey was also due to rule on the question of whether Sally Roberts’ wishes should be overruled and Neon be given radiation therapy. That decision is expected in the coming days.
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