Claire Foster-Gilbert

The Ethical Dimension

Conjoined twins used to be known as Siamese twins because the first ever case was discovered in Siam (now Myanmar CHECK).  When the embryo travels up the fallopian tube into the womb to implant, sometimes it divides and becomes two people (see embryo research).  This gives rise to identical twins.  Sometimes however the division doesn’t happen completely and the twins remain joined to each other.  This may mean that both, tragically, die in the womb or shortly after birth.  There have been some remarkable operations carried out by skilled surgeons to separate conjoined twins so that they go on to lead separate, healthy lives.  There are some cases of conjoined twins staying attached and living long lives, somehow accommodating their conjoinment, and sometimes expressing great satisfaction with their lot.  The case of Jodie and Mary presented a profound ethical dilemma, however.


Jodie and Mary were joined ‘end to end’ where their genitals would have been.  They shared one set of working vital organs, which were in Jodie’s body.  Mary was utterly dependent on Jodie for her life.  If they were left conjoined, their likelihood of survival was no more than six months.  If they were separated, Jodie would have a good chance of survival, but Mary would die immediately.


Is it ever right to end one person’s life in order to save another?


The parents did not want the babies to be parted.  They believed that the matter should be left to nature, and that God would decide what should happen.  They did not want to make the decision to end one of their children’s lives.


The doctors believed that the twins should be separated so that at least one of them had a chance of survival.


The case went to court and after considerable reflection the judge ruled that the twins should be separated.  Mary died, as predicted, and Jodie, though she has had to have a lot of reconstructive surgery, survives to this day.


Was the judgement right?