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Court ruling could lead to "severely brain damaged patients being starved to death"

21 September 2017


Minimally conscious patients could now have nutrition removed without a court order.

It sets a dangerous precedent. 

A judge has ruled that Court permission will not be needed to remove food and fluids from severely brain damaged patients, a move which has caused concern among opponents of euthanasia.

Legal safeguard

Unlike other forms of medical care, the decision to withdraw food and fluids from patients in a "permanent vegetative state" (the term "unresponsive wakefulness syndrome" is now generally preferred) has until now been referred to the Court of Protection, even if doctors and relatives are in agreement. 

Landmark ruling

Now, the decision by Mr Justice Jackson means those cases will no longer have to come to court. He made his ruling in a case concerning a 50-year-old woman who suffered from a degenerative illness for 14 years. The patient, known in court as M, had Huntington's disease and was bed-ridden in hospital and fed by a tube. The Court heard that she had shown no sign of awareness for 18 months.

Mr Justice Jackson agreed with her family and doctors that withdrawing nutrition from her would be in her best interests. The tube was removed and she died in August. Mr Justice Jackson said in his view the case should not have come to court.

Passive euthanasia

The ruling was welcomed by pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying. Chief Executive Sarah Wootton said the ruling was "a helpful step towards a clearer, more person-centred view of end-of-life care".

"When all parties - family, the hospital and treating doctors - are agreed on what someone would have wanted for their care, it seems absurd to require a costly court process to confirm this."

Dangerous precedent

However, the news has been greeted with great concern by patients rights groups. Dr Peter Saunders of the Care Not Killing Alliance said: "This court decision sets a dangerous precedent and should be appealed. Taking these decisions away from the court of protection removes an important layer of legislative scrutiny and accountability and effectively weakens the law.

"It will now be more likely that severely brain damaged patients will be starved or dehydrated to death in their supposed best interests and that these decisions will be more influenced by those who have ideological or financial vested interests in this course of action."

The official solicitor, appointed by the state to act for such patients, is likely to appeal against the ruling.

Recently, a British doctor wrote on his findings that many patients in a "vegetative" state, are in fact aware and can be communicated with.

News in brief:

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