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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 15:55 GMT
Woman pleads for right to die
A paralysed woman has been explaining to a High Court hearing why she wants to be allowed to die.

The woman, who is in her 40s and cannot be identified, is being kept alive by a ventilator.

A ruptured blood vessel in her spine has left her unable to move or breathe unaided for the last year. However, she is fully conscious and can speak.

How rehabilitation could help
Tilted bed to help patient sit upright
Spinal jacket to support the back
Mechanical arms controlled by eye or mouth movements
Keyboards activated in that way, allowing a patient to type
A powered wheelchair offering independence
Source: Mr Alan Gardner, of the charity BackCare
She is thought to be the first person in the UK to seek court approval for her own life-support machine to be switched off.

Her lawyers say she is fully aware of what she wants, and has the right to refuse life-prolonging treatment under the Human Rights Act.

However, doctors say it would be against their professional ethics to switch off the machine.

The woman's submission, made from her hospital bed in the presence of judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, was relayed back to the High Court via a video link.

She told the court that the consequences of having her ventilator switched off had been fully explained to her.

She said she had been "very ill for long periods" and asked whether she was prepared to compromise with the hospital, she said: "I want to be able to die."

Only issue

Dame Elizabeth said that the only issue she had to decide was whether the woman had the capacity to make a decision which included telling others to turn off the ventilator.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss is hearing the case
She said: "It's then going to be entirely up to you what you want to happen next and it would be in your hands whether you said 'please arrange for the ventilator to be turned off' at whatever was the most opportune and least distressing time for you.

"Or you would have a chance to say 'now I will consider rehabilitation but on the terms that if after six months I don't feel it's working, turn off the ventilator'."

After the visit to the hospital, legal argument continued back at the High Court, where proceedings were relayed back to the hospital.

No precedent

The woman's condition is stable, but her chances of improvement are put at under 1%.

However, her doctors say she cannot make a truly informed decision before she has tried a rehabilitation centre to see if she can improve the quality of her life.

There is a range of equipment available which could help. Experts say she could be given a spinal jacket to support her back and help her sit up, a powered wheelchair, or mechanical arms she could control with mouth or eye movements.

Diana Pretty
The case follows the battle of Diana Pretty
The High Court occasionally allows doctors to stop supporting lives of people in a "persistent vegetative state" with no chance of recovery or quality of life.

But this case is unprecedented, because the woman is neither unconscious, nor deteriorating.

This case differs from the high-profile fight of Diana Pretty for her husband to be allowed to help her end her life, because that would require active steps to kill her.

Deborah Annetts, of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said the doctors had no right to refuse to comply with the woman's wishes.

She said: "What the doctors have teen told to do by the BMA is that if a patient refuses treatment you have to comply with that. It's backed up by the law."

The hearing was adjourned. It is expected to end on Thursday, with judgement reserved until a later date.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The judge said this was an agonising case"
Woman B's lawyer Richard Stein
"She has come to this decision on a very well worked out basis"
See also:

23 Jan 02 | Health
Right-to-die case fast-tracked
04 Oct 01 | Health
Woman granted right to die
05 Oct 00 | Health
Court hears 'right to die' cases
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