A few weeks ago, three judges from Great Britain's High Court of Appeal prefaced a judicial decision by declaring themselves to be "a court of law, not a court of morals."

What legal dilemma could have provoked such a statement? The difficult case that occasioned the judge's self-assessment involved a set of conjoined twin girls that physicians had determined would both die unless they were medically separated, in which case one sister would survive and the other would not.

The twin sisters, identified by the pseudonyms Jodie and Mary to protect their identity, are joined at the abdomen, and only Jodie has a functioning heart and lungs. Her sister, Mary, has suffered brain damage as well.

The physical burden of sustaining what amounts to two bodies is gradually weakening Jodie, and if they were to remain conjoined, both sisters are virtually certain to die in a few months. Doctors decided, however, that with extensive and extreme surgery, Jodie, the stronger sister, could survive and live a fairly normal life in spite of some residual disabilities.

Further complicating the life and death decision is the fact that the twins' parents, who are Roman Catholics and vigorously opposed to the surgery, presented a statement of appeal to the High Court that declared: "We cannot begin to accept or contemplate that one of our children should die to enable the other one to survive. That is not God's will. Everyone has a right to life, so why should we kill one of our daughters to enable the other one to survive?"

The parents' position was supported by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, as well as Bruno Quintvalle, of Britain's Pro-Life Alliance, who called the High Court's decision "infanticide" and "a green light for further attacks on human life."

The High Court's position was that the survivable twin's right to life outweighed that of her biologically doomed sister. Lord Justice Alan Ward, the father of his own twin girls, described how the judges agonized over the difficult decision. Ward stated: "I freely confess to having found it truly difficult to decide--difficult because of the scale of tragedy for the parents and the twins, difficult for the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts of moral and ethical values, and difficult because the search for settled legal principles has been especially arduous."

Lord Justice Ward, speaking for the High Court, wrote that while Mary, the weaker twin, was an individual, "the sad fact is that she lives on borrowed time, all of it borrowed from her sister. She is incapable of independent existence. She is designated for death."

This was a difficult case, involving life and death issues as well as parental rights and deeply held religious convictions. Nevertheless, as an ardent pro-life advocate firmly rooted within the Judeo-Christian and historical Protestant traditions, I agree with most of the High Court's decision.

The weaker and doomed twin, Mary, is an individual. However, I believe as a Protestant non-pacifist that it is permissible to take a human life if the motive is to defend the life of a person who is being threatened by the person whose life is forfeited. Jodie, the stronger twin, is being imperiled by her biologically doomed sister.

I also believe the Court has a right and an obligation to protect the life of the survivable twin, up to and including overriding the parents' convictions when a child's life is at issue. The Court can, as it has on occasion in the U.S. legal system, supersede parental custody and assume custody itself to protect a child's vital interests.

Where I disagree with the High Court is in its attempt to reject that there was any moral dimension to its decision, and that it was guided merely by the law. Any fair-minded person who read the High Court's argumentation would conclude that it was indeed wrestling, as Lord Justice Ward acknowledged, with "seemingly irreconcilable conflicts of moral and ethical values." Was it guided by the legal tradition of Western civilization and British common law? Yes, it was. And those traditions were forged in a crucible informed by the moral and religious values of the people it governs.

Is the British High Court of Appeal "a court of morals"? No, it is not. That does not mean, however, that it is not and should not be a moral court, anchored in long-standing legal traditions informed by morality and profound respect for human life. We should truly fear the prospect of a mere court of law not informed by moral traditions. Surely the fascist, Nazi, and communist totalitarianisms of the 20th century stand as eloquent testimony to the unspeakable human suffering and injustice unleashed when law is not informed by morality.

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