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Our Relationship with Death: What the Archie case tells us

By Lynda Goetz

Photo released by Archie's mother, Hollie Dance, on the day of his death

The accident suffered by the British 12-year-old boy, Archie Battersbee, on 7 April at his home in Southend, England, and his resulting death on 6 August is a tragic event from which his family will, in all probability, never recover. As a mother of three children myself, albeit all now well beyond childhood, I can imagine the agony, the disbelief and the pain. However, I cannot somehow get to grips with the denial and the anger directed at the hospital and the medical staff; the mother’s belief that somehow she and Archie's family been put through a “horrendous experience” and that they were “stripped of all our rights”. Now that the poor child has been taken off life-support and has died, the family are calling for “an investigation and inquiry through the proper channels on what has happened to Archie, and we will be calling for change”.

As anybody who has been in the UK for the last few months will know, Archie was found unconscious in his room with a ligature around his neck. His mother believes he was taking part in a dangerous online challenge where people attempt to choke themselves until they blackout from lack of oxygen (hypoxia can give you a high). Whether that was the case or not is not really the point here, although it could have some bearing on the parents’ reaction, of course. In any case, he never regained consciousness and his brain was starved of oxygen for long enough to cause permanent damage. By the end of May doctors treating him in the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel believed he was “brain-stem dead” and wanted to withdraw treatment. His parents disagreed.

Their contention was that the usual test for brain-stem death had not been able to be carried out (some sources say that the parents refused permission) and that reliance on an MRI scan was not conclusive. The matter went to court and Mrs Justice Arbuthnot ruled on 13th June that the boy “died at noon on 31st May 2022” and that the Barts Hospital Trust could stop treating him. His mother could not accept this and appealed. The various legal processes were finally exhausted by the end of last week, and Archie was taken off all the artificial support and medical interventions. He died over the weekend. His mother, in the face of pretty much all evidence to the contrary, refused to believe that her son would not somehow eventually miraculously recover. He just needed “time”. She was supported in her fight by the Christian Legal Centre and unidentified others.

Some have expressed admiration for one mother’s fight for her son (along the lines of ‘where there’s life there’s hope)’; others have been less magnanimous. One has to question, however, the extent to which one family’s tragedy should be the cause of so much public airtime and, dare one say it, public expenditure. The ‘definition of death’ is much harder these days than it was before medical intervention could prolong life artificially. Archie’s mother’s claim that he should have been left on the ventilator and feeding tube until he died a ‘natural death’ seems more than a little bizarre.

This is not the first case where relatives have disputed the doctors’ conclusion on clinical death. In 2016, there was Alfie Evans in Liverpool. In 2017, the parents of Charlie Gard fought with Great Ormond Street Hospital which wanted life support treatment to end. The parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, wanted to take him to New York. They failed in their efforts to overturn the hospital’s decision and since Charlie’s death have been campaigning for “Charlie’s Law”, which would give parents of sick children more support and choice in their treatment. Ms Dance, Archie’s mother, has expressed support.

At a time when the NHS is struggling in every respect - staff morale is at an all time low; waiting lists at an all time high, and even getting to see a GP is almost an impossibility - should taxpayers’ money really be spent keeping ‘alive’ anyone whose prospects of a meaningful life are virtually zero? This, of course, sounds incredibly harsh, but the realities are harsh. Money that is spent on an intensive care bed and the attendant staff, plus money spent defending a medically-informed decision through the courts, all comes out of public money i.e. out of the pockets of British taxpayers. The NHS may be “free at the point of delivery”, but it is definitely not free. We all pay for it and we need those who spend that money to be able to decide priorities. Should they have to keep one young person alive and then have to defend any decision they make to turn off life-support because it is futile, at the expense of cancer patients and other young people they cannot treat because there is a finite sum of money available? Archie’s mum and Charlie’s parents may well have got funding from elsewhere for their legal challenges, but the hospital trusts forced to defend their decisions obviously use public funds.

Presumably the investigation and inquiry (no doubt again paid for from public funds) sought by Ms Dance would be focused on the same idea as those campaigning for Charlie’s Law, i.e. more support and choice for parents of children on life-support. Were this to be granted, it could only be at the expense of others who might actually have a chance of survival. Knowing how hard the medical staff would have worked and how difficult they too find such end-of-life decisions, it must be really tough for those who cared for young Archie to be so vilified by a mother in the grip of an understandable denial of the situation and overwhelming emotion. “Admirable” as such a fight may be, it is at the end of the day not in anyone’s interests and should definitely not be a scenario to be encouraged or repeated.

Ms Dance purports to be a Christian with a strong faith (although, interestingly, her conversion apparently came after Archie’s accident). According to that faith she should understand and accept that although we humans have more control over death than ever before, there comes a point when life has gone and we need to relearn to accept that (a harsh truth perhaps to accept in a time when there appears to be little acceptance of even a graphic description of miracles [university gives trigger warning to theology students]).

Perhaps if there is to be any investigation and inquiry it should be on the social media algorithms which bombard our children with dangerous and damaging sites which feed their need to fit in or prove their worth. Tiktok is apparently currently being sued by the parents of several children who have died under similar circumstances to Archie.



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