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The truth about the 96th death after the Hillsborough disaster

Posted by Anthony Ozimic on 13 May 2016

What can we learn from the case of Tony Bland, one of the 96 unlawfully killed after the Hillsborough disaster?

On 15 April 1989, scores of deaths and hundreds of other casualties occurred at the Hillsborough football stadium at Sheffield in northern England. Football fans were crushed and asphyxiated to death due to over-crowding caused by police mismanagement. Official enquiries found that 96 people had been "unlawfully killed".

At Hillsborough on that tragic day, Tony Bland, an 18 year-old fan of Liverpool football club, suffered a lack of oxygen to his brain as his ribcage was crushed amidst the other fans, thus causing massive damage to the upper brain. He was diagnosed as being in what was termed a "permanent vegetative state" (PVS). A more correct term for his condition is "persistent non-responsive state" (PNS) – "vegetative" has the unfortunate connotation that such patients are reduced to the state of vegetables. This is a condition of chronic wakefulness without awareness, in which the person responds in a reflex way, but not in a voluntary, purposeful way. Bland could breathe and digest food normally.

Withdrawal of food and fluids

Dr J.G. Howe, Bland's neurologist, consulted the local coroner's opinion about his plan to remove the food and fluid which were being provided to Bland through nasogastric tubes. The coroner replied in no uncertain terms that Dr Howe would face a murder charge if he withdrew food and fluids. The hospital trust applied to the High Court for a declaration allowing the withdrawal of food and fluids and – most sinisterly – that Bland's death should be attributed to his condition and not starvation and dehydration.

The High Court agreed, with the judge saying that "to his parents and family [Tony Bland] is dead. His spirit has left him and all that remains is the shell of his body." The case went to the Court of Appeal and then to the House of Lords. Lord Mustill, one of the Law Lords, argued that Tony Bland had no interest at all in being kept alive.

Tony Bland died on 3rd March 1993 after nine days without food and water. He became perhaps the first patient in legal history to die through the withdrawal of food and fluid done with the deliberate intention of bringing about his death. The Bland judgment, which technically was not meant to set a precedent, nonetheless influenced later court rulings, guidance to medical professionals and the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

Lessons to learn

What can we learn from the Bland case? Firstly, to question what we read in the media. The media report that 96 people were "unlawfully killed" in connection to the Hillsborough disaster is both true and false. False, in that Tony Bland was killed not by asphyxiation following negligent police crowd-control but by doctors with legal approval. True, in that such legal approval is unlawful if the law had been interpreted correctly and with reference to the right to life in international human rights law. The law and its courts, even in a supposedly liberal democracy, can be used for injustice as well as justice.

And secondly, that identifying a person by their disability rather than by their humanity leaves them vulnerable to lethal discrimination.

But what can we do? You can sign SPUC's Lives Worth Living petition today - which calls upon the Chief Executives of the NHS in England and Wales to stop end of life practices in NHS hospitals by which sick, elderly patients are assessed to have only 3 days to live and dehydrated and starved to death.

Click here to add your voice to the petition.

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