British Doctors Who Refuse Euthanasia May Face Criminal Charges

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 22, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British Doctors Who Refuse Euthanasia May Face Criminal Charges Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 22
, 2006

London, England ( — First it was the nation’s leading doctor’s group telling a bioethics council that severely disabled newborns ought to be killed via euthanasia. Now a leading government official says that physicians who refuse to take part in withdrawing food and treatment from incapacitated patients may face criminal charges.

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor of England, has warned doctors in a recent statement that they may receive prison sentences if they refuse to euthanize patients.

He said physicians who don’t "allow patients to die" by killing them by denying them food and water, as was the case with Terri Schiavo, could be charged.

The warning comes as the Labour government unveiled new guidelines for doctors that will go into effect next spring.

The guidelines require doctors to respect a patient’s advanced directive or living will even it if includes a request to withdraw lifesaving medical treatment, according to a Christian Today report.

“If you are satisfied that an advance decision exists which is valid and applicable, then not to abide by it could lead to a legal claim for damages or a criminal prosecution for assault," the guidelines say.

Dr. Peter Saunders, head of the Christian Medical Fellowship, says he’s concerned about patients who will make advanced decisions to have food and fluids taken away without knowing the facts.

"We are concerned that patients will make unwise and hasty advance refusals of food and fluids without being properly informed about the diagnosis," he told Christian Today. "It is too easy for patients to be driven by fears of meddlesome treatment and ‘being kept alive,’ into making advance refusals that later might be used against them.”

The new guidelines are more concerning in light of the case of Leslie Burke.

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 lost his legal battle at a European court to prevent a possible euthanasia death.

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 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 said in response.

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," he said.

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