An activist American priest has waded into a medical and ethical battle over a severely ill Canadian baby, helping whisk the boy away from a Southern Ontario hospital "under the cover of darkness" for medical treatment in the United States.
In the view of Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, Joseph Maraachli's case was a rescue mission from a Canadian medical bureaucracy that wanted to end the infant's life. He also believes it's symbolic of a broader debate: Should doctors or family members decide when and how a terminally ill patient dies?
"We saw this as a pivotal case. It really embodies for us some of the challenges of what we call 'the culture of death,'" Father Pavone said Monday after accompanying Joseph and his father in a private air ambulance flight to SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, a Catholic hospital in St. Louis.
"Medical professionals should give us medical information … but they should not make a value judgment about how much a life is worth," he said. "We believe that both in the United States and throughout the world, this is becoming more and more of a problem."
Joseph's parents asked for the help of Father Pavone and his group, which bills itself as the largest Catholic pro-life organization in the U.S., advocating against abortion and euthanasia. He gained prominence last decade as he spent years publicly battling against the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube in a contentious Florida medical and legal case that ignited an international right-to-life debate.
Priests for Life has raised $150,000 (U.S.) to cover the battery of medical tests that began Monday on Baby Joseph. The 13-month-old had been surviving on breathing and feeding tubes at London Health Sciences Centre for the past five months.
Officials with the Southern Ontario hospital refused to comment Monday. In a statement released Sunday, the medical centre said Baby Joseph's parents had a legal right to request their son's discharge, but added the infant's transfer to the American faith-based hospital was contrary to advice from medical experts in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Doctors at the London hospital, one of Canada's most prestigious medical institutions, felt Joseph's prognosis was clear. Admitted for treatment in October, the baby boy was diagnosed with a fatal neurodegenerative disease. His physicians determined he had no hope of recovery and recommended removing his breathing and feeding tubes.
But Joseph's parents, Moe Maraachli and Sana Nader of Windsor, Ont., launched a legal battle to stop the tubes' removal. Fearing he would suffer a painful death if his breathing tube was removed, they wanted physicians to perform a tracheotomy, which would involve cutting a hole in their son's throat to create an airway.
The London hospital refused to do the surgery, saying it was an invasive procedure designed for patients with a prospect of surviving.
Doctors at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, where Catholic values have a role in medical decisions, have decided otherwise. Robert Wilmott, chief of pediatrics there, said in a statement released Monday evening that Joseph will likely have a tracheotomy performed by the end of the week to facilitate his move to a nursing facility.
The plight of Baby Joseph has garnered public attention for months, playing out in the courts, media and social-networking Internet sites.
London hospital officials contend its physicians and staff have been targeted with threats through social media and e-mail, many of them originating from "members of U.S.-based groups." These threats have been forwarded to the hospital's lawyers, who plan to talk with the police.
Several other U.S. hospitals had declined to treat the Ontario boy.
Wilfrid Laurier University medical ethics professor Melany Banks doesn't believe the St. Louis children's hospital should have agreed to accept Joseph. She worries religious politics and the emotions of grieving parents have overtaken the boy's best interests.
"Of course grieving parents are going to jump at any hope," Dr. Banks said. "But with a terminal diagnosis, the main concern is alleviating pain and not performing any unnecessary surgeries."
The family's lawyer Claudio Martini noted Sunday's transfer was not as dramatic as portrayed by Father Pavone and his Priests for Life group, who used the phrase "under the cover of darkness." The London hospital responded promptly to the family's discharge request, Mr. Martini said.
Joseph's parents weren't available for comment. They lost another child to the same neurodegenerative disease eight years ago.