Court backs right to medical treatment

Patients’ rights to life-prolonging treatment were boosted last
week by a landmark High Court ruling.

Leslie Burke, 44, who has a degenerative brain condition, sought
clarification over when artificial nutrition and hydration can be
lawfully withdrawn, fearing that his wish to die naturally could be
overridden by doctors under existing General Medical Council

The court ruled that Burke and anybody else who asked for
life-prolonging treatment should have their wishes met unless the
patient had “lapsed into a coma”, lacking all awareness of what was

It also ruled that if a patient was incompetent and had not
expressed any prior view, doctors should only stop life-prolonging
treatment if the patient would view their life to be “intolerable”
if prolonged.

The Disability Rights Commission said the intolerability test –
already used by the courts – was set much higher than current GMC

Burke’s solicitor, Paul Conrathe, added that the judgement
represented a “significant shift in the balance of power away from
the doctor to the patient and from the medical profession to the

Burke argued that certain aspects of the GMC guidance were unlawful
as they were incompatible with his rights under the European
Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Justice Munby said that, although the overall content and
approach of the GMC guidance should greatly reassure patients and
their relatives, it was “vulnerable to criticism”.

The GMC said that, although the judgement provided “helpful
clarification” in a number of areas, there were others where
further clarification was needed and it had therefore sought leave
to appeal.

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