British Medical Council Appeals Ruling on Disabled Patient’s Rights

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 16, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British Medical Council Appeals Ruling on Disabled Patient’s Rights Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
May 16, 2005

London, England ( — The British General Medical Council appealed a court ruling on Tuesday in the case of Leslie Burke, a patient with a degenerative brain condition.

Burke won a case at the British High Court because he feared that doctors would refuse to provide him wanted food and water when his condition deteriorates to the point that has to receive nourishment through a feeding tube.

The U.K. High Court ruled that parts of the British Council’s guidance on treatment of such patients could have led to the withdrawal of foos and water for incapacitated patients.

The Council claims the decision would force doctors to use harmful or unnecessary treatments on some patients.

Philip Havers, an attorney for the Council, told the Court of Appeal in London Monday that the ruling introduced "important changes to the law in this area” which require "clarity and certainty."

The Council also claims that the court erred in concluding that food and water was a "straightforward" treatment and it contended treatment decisions depend upon individual cases.

"Whether it is in the best interests of the patient to start or continue life-prolonging treatment may mean addressing a number of difficult ethical as well as legal issues,” Havers said in court papers.

But Burke’s attorney, Richard Gordon, said his client "does not want to die of thirst" and "would want to be provided with water and food until he dies of natural causes.”

"Burke’ fears are, quite rationally, based on current international legal and bioethical trends," says Wesley J. Smith, who closely monitors end of life issues.

"Indeed, current British Medical Association ethical guidelines permit doctors to stop tube-supplied nutrition and hydration if they believe the patient’s quality of life is poor, leading to eventual death," Smith explained. "In such cases, patients’ or relatives’ views on the matter must succumb to the medical and bioethical consensus."

A poll earlier this month found only one-third of respondents favored guidelines for doctors allowing them to withhold food and water from patients who can’t make their own medical decisions.
"The survey shows that this humane ruling has the backing of the public," Dr. Mary Knowles, chair of First Do No Harm, told the Daily Mail newspaper.

A hearing on the Burke case is expected to conclude on May 18.

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