Why the GMC is right to appeal over life prolonging treatment

The General Medical Council, Britain's regulatory body for doctors, is right to appeal against a high court ruling that its current guidance on withholding and withdrawing life prolonging treatment is unlawful, says a professor of medical ethics in this week's BMJ.

The GMC's guidance was recently challenged by Mr Oliver Burke, a patient with a serious degenerative disorder who argued that it would allow doctors to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from him if he lost mental capacity. In July 2004, Mr Justice Munby ruled in Mr Burke's favour.

Emeritus Professor Raanan Gillon warns that, if not overturned, the judgement is likely to skew medical care by tilting the balance of medical practice towards non-beneficial and wasteful provision of life prolonging treatment in general and of artificial nutrition and hydration in particular.

He believes that the judgement itself extends far beyond this particular case and will inexorably lead to prioritisation of resources towards artificial nutrition and hydration and other life prolonging treatments for all legally incompetent patients who have not rejected them in advance.

"If it is not overturned, the ruling will delight vitalists, he says. "The rest of us - patients, doctors, and society in general - should be appalled by it. We should hope that the appeal court overturns the judgement," he concludes.

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