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Court rules brain damaged woman can be starved to death - based on old email

31 October 2017


The court has ruled that the patient's food and fluids can be cut off.

The judge referred to her "travesty of life". 

The daughters of a brain damaged woman have won a legal case to have the feeding tube that is keeping her alive removed, reports the Guardian

The two daughters of Mrs P, a 72-year-old woman who has been in a minimally conscious state since suffering a fall last November, have been in a legal battle with her three sisters, who have sided with an NHS trust in arguing that her current medical regime should continue.

"Travesty of life"

The Court of Protection has now ruled that Mrs P's naso-gastric tube should be removed and she should die in a hospice. The daughters presented evidence of an email Mrs P sent one of them in May 2013 about a television programme she had seen on dementia. She wrote: "Made me think of dad and what a travesty of life his last years were and all the sadder as he had such an incredible talent. You know I miss Mum every day and still talk to her but it is a comfort that she went quickly & I’m still haunted by how he ended up ... Get the pillow ready if I get that way!"

The court also heard evidence from the patient's 12 year old grandson, who said that "she liked her independence." The judge ruled: "I have come to the conclusion that Mrs P would have found her present circumstances not only intolerable but humiliating...Her present high level of dependency and minimal awareness would, to her, have been ‘a travesty of life’ – to adopt her own phrase. 

"Her incapacitous state does not mean her wishes can be disregarded. Her family, each of them, has permitted her voice to be heard and thus enabled her to assert her own autonomy."

Proper care?

However, Mrs P's three sisters had argued that her care should continue. One of them said that she believed the pensioner would have wanted "to have every possible care – high quality care – and choices. She would have wanted everything to be done for her at the appropriate time. I don’t understand why it wasn’t." She also said that Mrs P had shown signs of consciousness, including wiping a tear from her (the sister's) eye with a sheet.

Of the decision making process, she said: "Unless you’re going into the realms of emotional entrapment, I don’t think you can answer for anyone else without written documentation. My view is that when it comes down to end-of-life decisions, those have to be taken by the medical professionals."

Removing basic care a scandal

Dr Anthony McCarthy of SPUC said that the case is a very worrying one. "No human life is worthless, and food and fluids are not high-tech medicine but basic care. They should not be removed from those who need them, least of all with the aim of hastening death. In any case, to treat an email comment after a TV programme in 2013 about life with dementia as a formal refusal of food and fluids makes a mockery of informed consent."

"Many of those who may have previously assumed that their lives would have no value in imagined future states do appreciate their lives when they are in those states, as we are learning from new techniques for interacting with severely impaired patients," he continued. "Even basic attempts at communication may yield results if those trying to communicate persist. That basic care can be deliberately removed from a woman in a stable and non-terminal state due to a false judgement that her life is a 'travesty of life' is a scandal. That it is done in order that her life be ended is an affront to all who care for vulnerable people."

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