May 20 2005
British health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, has been condemned by disability rights campaigners for suggesting terminally ill people should not be able to insist on life-prolonging treatment.
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) has told the court of appeal, headed by Lord Phillips, master of the rolls, it found the suggestion by the minister and the General Medical Council (GMC) that doctors should be able to overrule the decisions of competent patients who want the treatment, to be deeply offensive and patronising.
Lawyers for the health secretary yesterday backed a bid by the GMC to reverse a high court ruling from July last year, when 45 year old Leslie Burke, who has a degenerative brain condition, won the right to stop doctors withdrawing artificial nutrition or hydration (ANH) treatment until he dies naturally. The GMC has appealed the ruling, claiming it will force doctors to provide treatments that were not in patients' best interests or even harmful.
The health secretary's lawyers have told the court of appeal that if a right to ANH was established, patients would be able to demand other life-prolonging treatments, leading to the misuse of NHS resources.
Barrister David Wolfe, representing the DRC, said that no one should be able to say that treatment was not in a patient's best interests because of "resource implications", and that the attitude of the health secretary and the GMC demonstrated society's negative attitudes towards disabled people.
Wolfe said the DRC is also concerned that doctors taking decisions about disabled people who lack capacity, should not simply be given the widest discretion and be guided by the loosest principle and guidance in doing so, this he said is a recipe for decisions based on a very negative view of disability and disabled people and one which wholly undervalues the lives which disabled people lead and value.
Mr Wolfe, on behalf of the DRC was making three propositions to the court. Firstly, disabled people with capacity should be able to decide for themselves what is in their best interests and not have the views of doctors imposed on them. Secondly, proper value must be placed on the lives of disabled people who lack capacity. And thirdly, any dispute on what was in the patient's best interest should be settled by the courts.
In the high court judgement last year, Mr Justice Munby ruled that if a patient is competent, or has made a request before becoming incompetent, doctors have a duty to provide ANH.
The ruling was hailed at the time as a breakthrough for the rights of vulnerable patients. Mr Burke believes it will save him from death by starvation or thirst if ANH is withdrawn after he loses the ability to communicate.