News of the Day ... in Perspective6/2/2005
Englishman sues for right to receive food and water
Leslie Burke, a 45-year-old man suffering from a progressive neurologic disease, has sued the British National Health Service to ensure that he will not be deprived of tube feedings against his wishes, should he lose the ability to swallow.
A trial court judge ruled that denying tube-supplied food and water that a patient wants “would be a breach of claimant’s rights under…the European Convention on Human Rights.” The General Medical Council, the medical licensing authority, appealed, joined by the British government.
The secretary of state for health argued before the Court of Appeal that while patients have the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, they don’t have the right to receive it. The trial court’s ruling, the government asserted, undermines the authority of doctors to make the “clinical judgment” about whether a patient’s “treatment would be of benefit,” based at least in part on “the resources which are available.” The right of doctors to exercise such control is “absolutely fundamental to the day-to-day functioning of the NHS” (Weekly Standard, May 30, 2005).
The Mental Incapacity Bill, passed by the House of Commons in April, changed the law so that food and water are now regarded as medication. Not only does the law allow doctors to kill mentally disabled people, it requires doctors to kill those who ask for death by withholding treatment such as food and water by tube (PRI Weekly Briefing, May 27, 2005, www.pop.org).
Do American patients have the right to buy life-saving treatment with their own funds? A memorandum from the Clinton Dept. of Justice (www.aapsonline.org/judicial/zelman.txt), summarized in “The Private Sector and Government Control,” AAPS News, May 1998.