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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
Life-or-death guidance 'illegal'
Intensive care patient
The guidance suggests that it is acceptable to let some terminally ill patients die
Key guidelines on when doctors can stop treating terminally-ill patients could be flawed or even unlawful, claim leading doctors.

The General Medical Council (GMC), which is currently drawing up the guidance, has not given people enough chance to point out these potential problems, they say.

However, a senior GMC figure said that expert lawyers, including the Official Solicitor, had checked and cleared the draft guidelines already published.

Professor Sir Cyril Chantler, who chairs the committee overseeing the process, told BBC News Online that he believed the consultation process had been thorough.

The accusations were levelled in a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, co-signed by several eminent doctors.

The GMC recently held a conference to discuss the guidance, "Withholding and Withdrawing Life-Prolonging Treatments".

Withdrawal of treatment from patients is a matter of prime public concern

Daily Telegraph letter
However, the letter complains that the conference was closed, and that many who had applied to attend were excluded.

They say the subsequent consultation period was too short, and poorly advertised.

"This is despite the fact that withdrawal of treatment from patients, particularly hydration and nutrition, is a matter of prime public concern," they write.

The doctors say the draft guidance, published prior to the consultation period, appears to be legally flawed.

It states that while in most cases prolonging life is in the patient's best interests, treatments should not be excessively burdensome or "disproportionate in relation to the expected benefits".

It continues: "Withholding or withdrawing life-prolonging treatment is in the best interests of a patient when there is no net benefit to the patient of providing the treatment."

Best interests

Professor Peter Millard
Professor Peter Millard signed the letter
However, in the Telegraph letter, the doctors write: "Currently, doctors consider patients' best interests clinically when treating them, but the guidance seems to encourage subjective 'quality of life' considerations that are worryingly vague.

"The guidance also appears to allow the withdrawing and withholding of fluids by tube to non-dying patients so as to cause their death. That, of course, is, and should remain, unlawful.

"No patient should ever be allowed to die through dehydration. The patient's thirst should always be relieved."

The doctors want the GMC to extend its consultation period and to ensure that the guidelines are discussed in an open forum.

The signatories to the letter include Professor Peter Millard, an expert in geriatric medicine from St George's Hospital, London, and Professor John Henry, of St Mary's Hospital, London.

It is also signed by Bruno Quintavalle, the director of the ProLife Alliance.

Sir Cyril said that the conference criticised in the letter had involved representatives from across the spectrum of ethical and religious opinion.

And he said that even though the official consulation period was closing, the objectors were still welcome to submit their views in the next few weeks.

He said: "We have had almost 500 responses over this. What is important is that we get the final guidance right.

"The consultation was open between May and July - we think that is long enough."

The government's Official Solicitor, he said, had checked the draft guidance and did not think it was unlawful, as had the GMC's in-house legal team.

He said that it was unlikely that the guidance would be approved by the GMC's governing council before next year.

See also:

27 May 01 | Health
Carers 'tempted by euthanasia'
11 Apr 01 | Euthanasia
Dutch legalise euthanasia
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