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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 18:25 GMT
Warning over right-to-die plea
A paralysed woman fighting for the right to have her life-support machine switched off has been warned of the effect it would have on doctors if she wins her court battle.

The hearing ended on Friday and judgement has been reserved until a later date.

Via a video link from the High Court to her hospital bed, the patient, known only as Miss B, heard Robert Francis QC explain that switching off her lifeline defies doctors' guiding principles.

He said: "These doctors are working at the very frontier of life with people at risk of death and they are struggling to keep them alive.

Just down the corridor there are other patients who the doctors are struggling to keep alive

Robert Francis QC
"Suddenly, doctors will be required by law with a competent patient to stand back and reverse what they have been doing."

He was addressing Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss, who must decide whether Miss B, who cannot be named for legal reasons, should have the right to choose her fate.

Mr Francis said: "If you look at the room where Miss B is being treated, and if ventilation were to be terminated, just down the corridor there are other patients who the doctors are struggling to keep alive."

He said in most cases, doctors have to carry the "burden" of making decisions on whether to withdraw treatment in cases where further care would be useless.

He said: "It cannot be in the public interest or patient that in addition to the dilemma that doctors face over treatment they would have the additional burden of a ruling that what they are doing is unlawful."

Blood clot

Earlier, the woman told the court she would not like to use a self-controlled mechanism for switching off the life-support system because it would look to her teenage god-daughter like she had committed suicide.

The woman has been told she has a less than 1% chance of recovering from paralysis caused by a blood clot on her spine a year ago.

Asked about the offer of transfer to a spinal injuries hospital for a rehabilitation programme, she said: "My view is that it offers me no real opportunity to recover physically, that, in actual fact, it will be more teaching me to live with my disability.

"But, actually, I will not recover in any way. That is not acceptable to me."

I do not make this decision lightly or uninformed

Paralysed patient

She was also asked why she had rejected the chance to be weaned off the ventilator.

She said she believed she would be given only sufficient sedation to relieve anxiety but no pain relief.

It would lead to a "slow" and "painful" death, she believed.

She added she had been sedated before and found it "frightening".

Doctors' ethics

"I do not make this decision lightly or uninformed," she said.

Philip Havers QC, representing the woman, told the court on Friday the patient had rejected all forms of treatment and rehabilitation and an attempt to wean her off the ventilator.

However, since last August, when two psychiatrists declared she had the capacity to make the decision on whether to refuse treatment, no-one had listened to her wishes.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said she was reluctant to accede to his request to rule that the hospital, where Miss B is being treated, had acted unlawfully.

She said: "She has been in an intensive care unit where it is the doctors' job to keep her alive.

"I don't want to give doctors the impression they have to be cautious when they treat people."

Mr Francis said the trust had a public duty to ensure the right thing was done.

He pointed out that on occasions, Miss B had been ambivalent about what she wanted to happen.

There had been incidents when her life-sustaining ventilation could have been withheld and on each occasion she either expressed relief that it was not or accepted continuation of her treatment.

He said this raised the question of whether she was unequivocal in her mind as she said she was, whether when she said no, she really meant it.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Lawyers praised the courage and dignity of the patient"
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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