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Why the medical and legal authorities (and the media) really took against the parents of the boy with a brain tumour

2014 September 2
by Paul Vallely

It was just a little parenthesis but, between the commas, a thread of prejudice was revealed. “Mr and Mrs King” began the sentence. And then came the words “who are Jehovah’s Witnesses”. It did not just appear in one newspaper but in many of the first reports of the story of five-year-old Ashya King, the boy with the brain tumour whose parents had suddenly removed him from Southampton Hospital.

Others were more explicit, revealing that the thread was part of a backcloth of bias.   Brett and Naghmeh King had taken the boy from hospital “despite” suffering from a brain tumour. Jehovah’s Witnesss, they noted, “refuse blood transfusions on religious grounds”. Hampshire Police had issued an arrest warrant for “cruelty to a person under the age of 16 years”. The bad faith of the Kings was taken for granted.

On Radio 4 the Today programme compounded the smear by using the case as the introduction for an attack by the novelist Ian McEwan on Jehovah’s Witnesses, with the interviewer, Mishal Husain, inviting him to extend his assault on religion more generally.

Mr McEwan’s latest novella, which has been criticised for its “formulaic” plot, centres on a high court judge who must decide whether a teenager who is not yet 18 should be allowed to refuse a live-saving blood transfusion. “Sometimes religious views run right against the grain of what seems rationally compassionate,” he told Ms Husain who tried to move the subject on to the Trojan Horse plot and extremism in schools, perhaps hoping that Mr McEwan would repeat his view that in the clash between the religious and secular imaginations “the secular mind seems far superior”.

What the novelist, the media and the hospital authorities had in common was a degree of religious illiteracy. Jehovah’s Witness may oppose blood transfusions but they offer no religious opposition to the chemo or radiotherapies the hospital wanted for Ashya. Mr McEwan has elsewhere complained about the “uninterrupted monochrome” of religion. Those who criticise faith have no credibility when they proceed from a basis of such ignorance.

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, the doctors in Southampton no doubt thought when Mr King trawled the internet for alternative treatments for his little boy. But the same admonition applies to those who so blithely parade their religious prejudice.

Misinformation has dogged this case from the outset. The Kings’ objections to blunderbuss radiotherapy were not religious. They were medical. The parents wanted a more focussed Proton beam radiotherapy which is only used to treat eye tumours in the UK but is used on brain tumours in other countries. They did not from remove him from Southampton “despite” his brain tumour but because of it. However misguided that may have been, it was well-intentioned.

Perhaps that is true, too, of the authorities who told Mr King if he questioned their judgement they would exclude him with a court order, and then issued a heavy-handed warrant alleging cruelty by the parents.   The irony is that their fear of cruelty ended in the actual cruelty of a small child lying alone in a foreign hospital – with his Mum and Dad in separate jails 300 miles away – surrounded by strangers he cannot understand.


from The Church Times

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