UK court denies brain-damaged woman right to die

[JURIST] A UK High Court judge ruled [judgment, PDF] Wednesday that a brain-damaged woman in a "minimally conscious" state does not meet statutory requirements to allow her family to discontinue life-sustaining treatment. The woman, known as "M," contracted viral encephalitis in February 2003, fell into a coma and subsequently emerged in what was later determined to be a "minimally conscious," non-vegetative state. The family's request to discontinue treatment was a case of first impression in the UK, as the courts previously had only ruled on cases involving patients in vegetative states. After hearing testimony from the family and M's medical staff, Justice Baker determined that the situation failed to meet the requirements under the Mental Capacity Act [materials]. Specifically, M did not make any formal advance decision regarding the withdrawal of treatment if she were to be in her existing state. Baker determined that "the importance of preserving life [was] the decisive factor" in the case, but also acknowledged that the family would likely be disappointed in the outcome:

I realise that this decision will be a severe disappointment to members of M's family who have endured years of anguish during which they have demonstrated their deep devotion to M. ... I urge everyone concerned with M—doctors, care staff, and her family—to work together to agree on a revised care plan which gives her an opportunity of more positive experiences.
Baker also determined that M's "Do Not Resuscitate" order should be continued but held that other treatment decisions should be left to medical and care staff.

The right to die has been a highly contentious issue around the world. Last month, the Supreme Court of British Columbia [official website] dismissed [JURIST report] a right to die suit for lack of standing. The suit challenged the constitutionality of a provision of section 241(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada [text], which criminalizes assisted suicide. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of India [official website] rejected a petition for mercy killing [JURIST report] but ruled that passive euthanasia was permissible under certain circumstances. The German Federal Court of Justice [official website, in German] ruled in October that removing a patient from life support is not a criminal offense [JURIST report] if the terminal individual had previously given consent. The year before, the Supreme Court of Western Australia [official website] upheld the right to die [JURIST report] in a case involving a quadriplegic who asked to be removed from food and hydration services.

 

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