An exceptionally important case was decided by the Supreme Court of British Columbia on Friday, March 18, 1983, when it ordered that a six-year-old retarded boy have a relatively minor brain-shunt operation. This operation saved him from death, or at least from increasing pain and discomfort.

A few days earlier, on Monday, March 15, Provincial Judge Patricia Byrne of Burnaby Family Court had ruled that the life-saving operation for Stephen Dawson would be “cruel and unusual treatment” and an extraordinary intervention in a hopeless case. Stephen had been born a normal child, but at a few weeks of age, had suffered meningitis, which allegedly left him deaf, mute and blind and hydrocephalic (water on the brain) as well as having cerebral palsy. The brain shunt was required to alleviate the build up of brain fluid. In the lower court Judge Byrne had accepted the parent’s argument that they and the doctor alone should make the decision whether the operation should be performed, i.e. whether the child should live and that the state should not intervene. It was successfully argued that it was a “civil liberties right” to refuse treatment and in this case that a parent had the right to refuse treatment for an incompetent child.

Just hours after the decision of Judge Byrne, the British Columbia Association for the Mentally Retarded and the Ministry of Human Resources for the British Columbia government, asked the British Columbia Supreme Court for leave to petition the Court for an Order that the surgery be performed. The petition was heard before Mr. Justice Lloyd McKenzie and during this hearing further evidence was heard. In particular, medical experts testified that Stephen, before the fluid build-up, was a happy boy, and that he was able to communicate with rudimentary sounds, play and respond to his surroundings. He was able to make limited advancement and appeared to enjoy his life. Evidence was also heard that the parents, Mr. And Mrs. Dawson, had not had the child in their care overnight since he was admitted to the hospital in 1978.

The couple had gone through several separations during their seven-year marriage, before Mrs. Dawson successfully sued for divorce in 1980, on the grounds of mental cruelty.

In handing down the decision, Mr. Justice McKenzie stated ” It’s too simplistic to say the child should be allowed to die in peace.” He said he was troubled by the thought that parents or the court could decide that the life of a disabled child was less valuable than that of a normal child, and, therefore, not worth preserving. “I don’t think that it lies with the prerogative of any parent or this court to look down on the disadvantaged person’s life and find that it is so low that it does not require continuance…” “I’m not convinced that the life of this child is so demonstrably awful that he should be condemned to die. His life is so imponderable that it would be wrong for him to be condemned to die.”

Mr. Justice McKenzie stressed that this was not a right-to-die situation. ” It is rather a question of whether Stephen has the right to the necessary medical and surgical care of a relatively simple kind.” He went on to say: ” This court could not sanction the termination of a life except for the most coercive of reasons. It is not appropriate for an external decision maker to apply his standards of what constitutes a “liveable life.”

Significance of this decision

Had the decision of the British Columbia Supreme Court in this case gone the other way, there would be hundreds of people in line for death, including the elderly and other chronic-care patients. The Dawson decision confirms the right of handicapped people to receive normal medical treatment. It also means that the decision of life or death is not a private matter between parents and the doctor as argued by the parents in this case. This latter argument has a faintly familiar ring to those in the pro-life movement since it is the basic pro-abortion argument, i.e. “the decision is a private matter between a woman and her doctor”. Both, the parents in this case, and the woman in the abortion situation, have a conflict of interest when they make the life and death decision for another.

Although the “private decision” argument was effectively refuted in the Dawson case – watch out – it will be used again, and again, and again, in order to break down resistance to the basic tenet on our legal system that no one has the right to decide privately whether another human being may live or die. Pro-abortionists have argued that abortion is a matter of private morality, and that acceptance of this reasoning with respect to abortion will not lead to euthanasia. The Dawson case proves just how close we came to that and how vigilant we must be against it in the years ahead.