BC government seizes three sextuplets for blood transfusions

Vancouver, Canada - B.C. government social workers seized three of four surviving sextuplets on the weekend so they could receive blood transfusions over their parents' religious objections and Supreme Court of Canada precedent, the family's lawyer says.

But the province abruptly handed control of the infants back to the parents Wednesday when they challenged the seizure in court. The parents, who cannot be identified under a court-ordered publication ban, are Jehovah's Witnesses whose beliefs forbid blood transfusions even to save a life.

The sextuplets were born the first weekend in January almost four months premature and two had died before the province's director of child, family and community service stepped in last Friday.

Lawyer Shane Brady said the parents did not oppose "mainstream" medical treatment. But they expressly ruled out blood transfusions for the struggling babies, indicating they wanted to seek medical alternatives.

The government got a provincial court judge to issue an unchallenged seizure order for one of the babies Friday at B.C. Children's Hospital.

Social workers seized two others over the weekend after doctors indicated they too should receive blood transfusions, according to a court affidavit by the babies' father.

"The family is very upset that the government treated them in the way it did," Brady said outside court. "It's like a hit and run."

The family got wind of the government's plans last week. The babies were seized in spite of the parents' pleas for a hearing, Brady said after Wednesday's hearing in B.C. Supreme Court.

The government withdrew the seizure order at the hearing but the court has scheduled another hearing Feb. 22-23 so the parents can challenge province's conduct.

"The family appealed what the government did and has brought an application for judicial review, saying that the government violated what the Supreme Court of Canada said 10 years ago," said Brady.

He said a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1995 gave parents the right to present evidence at a hearing in such matters. In 1999, the high court affirmed that, saying it is a fundamental right of Canadian society.

"Parents are entitled to a fair hearing," said Brady. "It may be abridged but they're entitled to a fair hearing.

Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen refused to discuss the case specifically, citing privacy law.

But he said doctors have an obligation to go to ministry authorities when they believe a child is in danger.

"We don't take any such action without a great deal of forethought, recognizing that it's a significant step for the state to interfere in a family," Christensen said.

"But we want to ensure in every case that children are receiving the attention they require."

A child's welfare trumps a family's religious beliefs, Christensen indicated.

"Our obligation to protect children is paramount," he said in Victoria.

Apprehending a child is a last resort, Christensen said.

"The ministry will always take the least intrusive option that we have," he said.

Brady said the transfusions made little difference in the medical state of any of the children, who remain in stable condition.

Brady has represented several Jehovah's Witness children in the courts in recent years, including 17-year-old Bethany Hughes of Calgary, who died of leukemia in 2002 after her father battled his daughter and her mother for her to have blood transfusions during her treatment.

The first of the six B.C. babies were born Jan. 6 with the rest born Jan. 7. They were premature at 25 weeks and each was not much bigger than an outstretched hand.

Hospital president Dr. Liz Whynot said at the time the babies were in fair condition after their births.

Doctors said babies born at that stage have an 80-per-cent chance of surviving to leave the hospital and still could face major health problems due to the immature development of their organs and immune systems.

Brady said the government's action in recent days was even more inexplicable given the babies' odds of survival.

In his affidavit, the father said doctors suggested early in the pregnancy that the fetuses could be selectively aborted.

And just before they were born, doctors told the parents to decide if they wanted the infants to have help breathing - that without resuscitation they would die.

"The parents respect the sanctity of life - that's their religious views - and they chose resuscitation," said Brady.

"Two weeks later the government completely turns around and says we're going to take the children away from you.

"Two weeks ago, if the parents were so inclined, they could have refused resuscitation. It was their choice. Today, the government wanted to interfere. It doesn't make sense."