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To Separate or not to Separate

The British courts are now facing a legal, moral and medical dilemma involving conjoined twins. Doctors at the British hospital where the twin girls were born a month ago say the babies should be surgically separated, but the parents oppose the procedure because it would violate 'God's Will.'


The twins are joined at the lower abdomen. Only one has a working heart and lungs. Unless the operation is performed, doctors say both babies will probably die within six months. With the surgery, doctors hope to be able to save at least one of the girls.


Lawyers for the parents, who are Roman Catholics from a remote part of Europe, have asked the courts to prevent a separation. The parents say they want nature to take its course.


"The parents' view," says John Kitchingman, the parents' lawyer, "is [that] the children should be allowed whatever life expectancy their medical condition permits. So what we're asking, what we're looking for, is an order which will reflect their wishes and their own view of what is in the best interests of the children."


It's a stark dilemma, even for experts in medical ethics.


"The problem is that each of the children, each of the Siamese twins, has an equal right to life," says Richard Nicholson, MD, of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics.


A British judge says the question of whether to allow surgery amounts to the unlawful killing of the weaker twin. But not everyone's convinced that what's right lies solely in the law.


"I think most people would feel that at the end of the day, if there are two dead children, then that would be a defeat for everybody, both the law and medicine," says Allen Levy, a children's law expert.


With a life or death decision to make, the judges are asking doctors for a second opinion: Is there a chance the twins could stay joined and still survive? Or, if they're separated, how realistic is the hope of at least one of them surviving?


CBS Correspondent Richard Roth filed this report.

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