British Appeals Court Rejects Burke's 'Right To Live'
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
July 28, 2005
LONDON, ENGLAND--The British Court of Appeal ruled Thursday that doctors can remove food and water from patients with terminal illnesses or severe disabilities that cannot communicate -- if the doctors think it would be in the patients' best interests.
The decision overturned a lower court's ruling which found that patients had the right to demand life-prolonging treatment, including nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube.
The original case was brought to the High Court last year by Leslie Burke, 45, who has cerebellar ataxia, a condition that doctors say will get worse as he ages. At some point, he will not be able to talk or move, but he will still be able to see, hear, and understand everything that is going on around him.
Burke challenged guidelines published by the General Medical Council in 2002 that allow doctors to pull feeding tubes from patients who are not able to express their wishes regarding their treatment, if the doctors believe that treatment is "too burdensome".
The three-member appeal panel wrote that Burke's complaint was unnecessary because the GMC guidelines already address his concerns.
"A patient cannot demand that a doctor administer a treatment which the doctor considers is adverse to the patient's clinical needs," the Justices wrote. "That said, we consider the scenario that we have just described is extremely unlikely to arise."
The Justices added, however, that doctors could be charged with murder if they failed to give food and water to a 'competent' patient who wanted to live.
Outside the courtroom, Burke told the Yorkshire Post: "A doctor is not allowed to refuse me food and water while I remain competent."
"But what is the definition of competent? When do I become an incompetent person? Is it when I am no longer able to communicate?"
"For those people who feel like I do there was no good news at all today," he said.
Burke's lawyer, Paul Conrathe, told Reuters: "The Court of Appeal has confirmed today that patients like Mr. Burke who want food and water have to be given it."
The case cannot be appealed further. Burke and Conrathe said they may take the issue directly to lawmakers in Parliament.
Disability rights groups have criticized the government's decision to challenge Burke's request to have his advance requests for life-prolonging treatment honored.
"Dying man loses legal battle over right to be fed" (Daily Telegraph)
"In some ways, partial victory I won is hollow" (Yorkshire Post)
"Court of Appeal clarifies GMC guidelines on right to life" (The Lawyer Group)