British Man Loses European Court Case to Prevent Possible Euthanasia Death

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 10, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British Man Loses European Court Case to Prevent Possible Euthanasia Death Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 10, 2006

London, England ( — A British man has lost his legal battle at a European court to prevent a possible euthanasia death. Leslie Burke, a patient with a degenerative brain condition, fears doctors may one day refuse to provide him wanted food and water when his condition deteriorates to the point that has to receive nourishment through a feeding tube.

He said he worries that British General Medical Council guidelines giving doctors the ultimate say over a patient’s life were an infringement on patients rights and his right to live.

Burke won a case at the British High Court in May 2005 but the GMC appealed the ruling and won on appeal. Burke then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The European court sided with the GMC saying there was no real threat that Burke would be denied food and water when his condition deteriorates. There is no "real and imminent" threat, they wrote.

"I’m extremely disappointed with the result," Burke responded, according to a London Guardian news report.

"I only hope that if I am lucky enough to be in hospital, that the doctors treating me will not believe at some stage that it will be in my best interests for ANH [artificial nutrition and hydration] to be withdrawn, even when death is imminent, effectively letting me die of starvation and thirst when I am no longer able to communicate my wishes," Burke added.

The British High Court ruling said parts of the British Council’s guidance on treatment of such patients could have led to the withdrawal of food and water for incapacitated patients.

But, the European court said when a patient couldn’t communicate that food and water should be continued but added that some treatments could hasten death so it could not hand out general rules for every patient.

Burke’s attorney, Muiris Lyons, told the Guardian that the European court essentially said his lawsuit to protect his rights was "premature."

"However once he loses the capacity to make his own decisions, he will also lose the ability to make such an application in his own right," Lyons explained. "It is a Catch-22 situation."

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

"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."

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