Saturday, June 25, 2011

A new 'sanctity of life' challenge

It began with Tony Bland, who suffered brain damage in the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster. He was diagnosed as being in what has come to be known as persistent vegetative state.

Doctors said he was unaware, but not in pain. He was not dying. He was not on life support. Cared for, he could have lived for 30 years. But in 1993 the law lords decided - though not in a unanimous decision, you may remember - that doctors could withhold food and water from him, thus causing him to die.

It was the first time in history English courts sanctioned causing the death of an innocent man who was not already dying.

Since then, it has been possible to apply to the courts for permission to withdraw food and water from patients in so-called persistent vegetative state, and numbers of patients have died in this way.

I am opposed to nutrition and hydration being withdrawn in these circumstances. I do not believe it is possible to prove total lack of awareness. I do not know how it can be said there is no possibility of improvement (some patients diagnosed as being in persistent vegetative state have recovered). And whatever you think of those two points, we are still taking innocent human life.

Now there has come another sinister development. A mother is applying to the courts for permission to withdraw nutrition and hydration from a patient said to be minimally conscious. The case comes before a court in the next few weeks.

If permission to withdraw food and water is granted here, we will have crossed another rubicon; taken another important step down the slippery slope.