BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  Health
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Background Briefings 
Medical notes 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Friday, 22 March, 2002, 07:47 GMT
Ruling on right-to-die case
High court graphic
The ruling will affect future right-to-die arguments
A paralysed woman will learn on Friday whether her life-support machine can be switched off.

The most senior family court judge in England and Wales, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, will deliver her judgment in a three-way video link between Birmingham, London, and the woman's hospital bed.

The woman - known only as Miss B - has been told there is only a 1% chance of recovery from paralysis and wants to be allowed to die.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss
Dame Elizabeth questioned the woman closely
Doctors oppose her request because they say it defies their guiding principles to protect life.

But Dr Richard Nicholson of the Bulletin for Medical Ethics said he would be "astounded" if the ruling did not go in the woman's favour.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the case appeared to be about the right of doctors "to override decisions of competent adults".

He also cast doubts on doctors' insistence that their primary concern must be to preserve life.

"The first requirement of the Hippocratic Oath is 'do no harm'. If you are preserving life at all costs but in order to do so the patient reckons you are harming them... then you are in breach of that first 'do no harm' requirement," he said.

Patient 'respect'

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris agreed that doctors should do more to recognise patient autonomy.

Patients have a right to decide their own destination - even if that decision is felt to be irrational

Dr Evan Harris, Lib Dem health spokesman
"Some doctors still don't have the message that patients have a right to decide their own destination with regard to treatment - even if that decision is felt to be irrational.

"If a patient has capacity that wish has to be respected," he told Today.

Dame Elizabeth will give the judgment by video link because the judge will be in Birmingham, the barristers in the London High Court and Miss B in her hospital bed.

Miss B, who was left paralysed from the neck down after a blood clot lodged near her spine a year ago, has previously given video evidence from hospital.

Miss B has told the court she would not like to switch off the system herself, because that would look to her loved ones like suicide.

And she has rejected an opportunity to be "weaned" off the ventilator, which she said would mean being given inadequate ventilation, waiting to contract a subsequent infection and then suffering a slow, and painful death.

European court

Under current law somebody mentally competent can decide to refuse medical treatment.

In August 2001, two psychiatrists declared Miss B was mentally competent to make decisions about her future - but she told the court that despite this, no-one had listened to her wishes.

Doctors are arguing that if they were given time to try to improve Miss B's quality of life - with, for instance, various rehabilitation aids - that might change her mind.

They have also said that on occasions, Miss B had been ambivalent about what she wanted to happen - so they were not certain whether she was unequivocal in wanting to be allowed to die.

The decision comes in the same week that motor neurone disease sufferer Diane Pretty went to the European Court of Human Rights in an effort to gain permission for her husband to help her die.

A ruling in that case is not expected for at least two weeks.

The BBC's Jake Lynch
"Miss B faced a terrible dilemma"
Andy Berry from ALERT
"It basically says we have one right - the right ot die"
Motor Neurone Disease sufferer, Alison Davis:
"I wanted to die for a period of over 10 years"
Miss B's solicitor Richard Stein
"We are very optimistic"
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
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Health stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Health stories