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Should Siamese twins always be separated? Hard decisions on surgical treatment of Siamese twins

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(Picture above is not of siamese twins referred to in this article)

Siamese twins were hugely in the news in February 2004 after the birth of Rebeca Martinez with a second parastitic head growing out of the top of her own skull.

Rebecca died after the conjoined twin head was cut off. Another tragedy happened in 2000 following the arrival in the UK of distraught parents from the Maltese Island Gozo, seeking medical help to separate their two newborn babies, Jodie and Mary.  Doctors at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester had no experience of separating Siamese twins but feared that unless action was taken, both would die. 

The parents were told that despite appearances, Mary's internal organs were so defective that she could not survive without being joined to Jodie.  The parents of the Siamese twins refused an operation, and the case was heard in court.  The Judges ruled that the operation should go ahead..... but.....

What are Siamese Twins?

Siamese twins are formed from a single egg which develops into two almost separate balls of cells. In normal twinning, each ball becomes an identical twin. As a result cells in Siamese twins become confused about where they are in the body - indeed which of the two Siamese twins they are actually in.

In normal embryo and foetus development every cell knows where it is in the body because the neighbours produce chemical messages. 

So a skin cell knows not only it is skin, but that it is - say - nose skin, rather than chin or ear or lip skin. In Siamese twins these chemical messages don't work properly - how can they? 

The end results can be very bizarre:  a single organism with two heads, two hearts, four legs and arms - or is that single organism actually two people, two individual Siamese twins?

Two heads on one body - another type of Siamese twins

Picture above does not relate to this case below

I once was present in the labour room when a child was born with two heads - yes two heads - on a single set of enlarged shoulders.  Siamese twins or just another major abnormality?

So then. you can't label all Siamese twins the same.  There are huge variations in the degree of joining.  Some are born with two bodies and one head for example.

In the case above, the two headed child / Siamese twins was / were stillborn.  But what if it / they had stayed alive? 

What if we had landed up with two thoughtful Siamese twin brains on the same body - perhaps only one actually in control of movements below the neck?

Strangely enough, a surgeon has made an artificial Siamese twin of a monkey, onto which a second head was transplanted.  (See video).

The moral debate on separation of Siamese twins

In fact the situation with the Siamese twins in the UK was in a way quite similar.  Although at first sight each appeared to have a separate well formed body with some joining at the lower body, detailed tests showed these Siamese twins were very unequal - one was providing the heart, lungs and many other basic functions.

The other Siamese twin was very poorly equipped for separate life.  To make matters worse, these Siamese twins, Jodie and Mary,  were also to some extent mutually dependent.  If separated, the stronger and more capable Siamese twin (Jodie) would need huge amounts of surgery over subsequent years, and was likely to suffer significant handicap.

The parents came in a hurry to the UK because they heard that Britain was expert on the management of Siamese twins, hoping no doubt that both could be separated with few long term problems.

The long court battle was decided with doctors being given the right to cut off the weaker Siamese twin, thereby killing Mary, to preserve the life of Jodie - against the parent's wishes.  They felt that if the two could not be safely separated then they should be left together and nursed with loving care until natural events took over.  Some doctors said that both would soon be dead in that case.  Others said that these two Siamese twins could survive far longer with good basic care.

Doctors have second thoughts on separation of Siamese twins

Of course, once the court battle was won by doctors, they began to have second thoughts.  It is a brave doctor indeed who is willing to take the knife to two Siamese twins, both of which are at that point alive and growing, and see perhaps both Siamese twins die in the operating theatre or very shortly afterwards. 

Easier to go ahead if the parents want their Siamese twins separated and understand and accept the risks - but what if you have had to force the whole thing on them in the first place?

And there is another issue.  The survivor of these Siamese twins would need huge care efforts and community support.  The parents said this would be unlikely in their own culture and themselves felt very resentful and angry at what they saw as gross medical interference.

A fundamental problem in Siamese twin decisions is that the parents themselves may not always agree, they may each feel differently on different days. 

It is common for parents to feel somehow that the birth of Siamese twins is their fault, or to blame each other, doctors, society or God.   The natural joy of birth has been replaced by overwhelming grief for the loss of what might have been - in this case one or two perfectly normal children. This is a hard place to make life-changing decisions about Siamese twins management.

Doctors should treat with great care

My own view, on balance is that doctors should tread with great care when parents are refusing certain treatments for their children, where the outcome of successful treatment is likely to be severe handicap and loss of quality of life.   It is a human right for any human being to refuse medical treatment, and it is the responsability in the case of children for parents to take those decisions on behalf of their children. 

In this case the fight was because some doctors disagreed with the parents and wanted to take that responsability away.

But these parents had come to the UK in good faith, seeking advice on the management of Siamese twins.  They did not expect to find themselves imprisoned in the country, forbidden to take their children back home, and forced to take that advice, when they believed it to be morally wrong.  Their Siamese children were essentially kidnapped by court, and imprisoned against their parents' will in the UK.  That does not sit comfortably with me.

Medicine gone mad

Too many times I have seen medicine gone stark raving lunatic mad with aggressive over-treatment and stupid decisions.  Even the Catholic church, traditionally the most conservative in these matters, has taken the position that doctors should not strive officiously to keep someone alive.  This is a common issue in the care of those dying of advanced cancer.  It was in keeping with this that the Vatican offered a safe refuge and hospice care.

Here is a strange irony:  if mother had arrived a day before going into labour, under existing UK law doctors could have killed the Siamese twins in the womb and then forced a labour and buried or cremated them without any fuss whatsoever.  The UK has one of the laxest abortion laws in the world. But the moment these two Siamese twins were born, the world began to worry that every possible effort should be used to at least keep one alive.

It would be far safer for the future of humanity if we meddled less, and allowed nature far more room to take its own course, neither slaughtering babies in the womb just hours or minutes before birth, nor going over the top to fight for life at all possible costs after birth.

*  The Siamese name comes from the well known twins Eng and Chang born to Chinese parents in Siam (now Thailand). The first surgical separation of Siamese twins was in 1953.

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Thanks for promoting with Facebook LIKE or Tweet. Really interested to read your views. Post below.

October 30, 2014 - 20:28

I agree this is so not a laughing matter and the correct term is conjoined twins, Siamese twins is a racial slur. What if this was you kid, seriously would you kid like this? That is immature. Do you think this is a joke? Really? Grow up!

long live islamic counntry
March 05, 2014 - 00:53

hello guys i am muslime and i am pray to the allah and allah give to all siam twins live thanks you helpfull allah

October 21, 2013 - 14:40

The term 'Siamese twin' is both outdated and offensive as it was the name used to described Chang and Eng whilst they were being extorted as part of a freak show...

August 01, 2012 - 01:15

Why did you choose a crime photo for this article? I find your article dated, if not simply strange.

May 03, 2012 - 13:18

I think no.Even if the two brains are tucnhiog in one skull, I don't think that would allow the two people to share thoughts any more than two people can share thoughts by tucnhiog their heads together.But they probably think many of the same things anyway, because they are very similar people, with similar experiences. If the thoughts did cross brains, I don't think they would know where the thought originated. They would just both believe that they thought it themselves.

January 30, 2012 - 10:21
Please, take down the first photo

The first photo of the conjoined twins with cleft lips is really upsetting to me as a mother of a cleft lip and palate child. It is extremely upsetting to look at, and I would really like to see it removed from this post. Please.

January 17, 2011 - 10:15

You spelled ''responsibility'' wrong I believe.

September 16, 2010 - 20:00


July 14, 2010 - 18:28

i m a siamese tiwn

June 12, 2010 - 17:20

You guys are all bastards u guys think this is funny?

September 22, 2008 - 09:56

no relation to information on the subject only a few lines are there....

Join the Debate! What are your own views?



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