Paralyzed Woman Appeals For 'Right To Die'

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - Officials from the U.K.'s High Court met in a special session Wednesday to decide whether a fully conscious woman being kept alive on a ventilator has the right to request that the machine be turned off so that she may die.

The unnamed woman, who is paralyzed, is the first person to ask the U.K. courts to have her own ventilator switched off.

Her lawyer says that while the woman's condition is stable and she still has all her mental faculties, she has less than 1 percent chance of recovery. The woman's doctors say their ethical training will not allow them to cut power to the ventilator.

"She has been wanting to terminate that treatment ever since she has known the prognosis is so poor," lawyer Richard Stein told the BBC. "Doctors seem to be, in a way, imposing their wishes on her."

In court, Stein will cite Britain's Human Rights Act and argue that keeping the woman alive amounts to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

The High Court hearing began in the hospital Wednesday morning and returned to a courtroom in the afternoon, where a video link allowed the woman, who is in her 40s, to watch the arguments. The proceedings are expected to last three days.

A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association (BMA) said that under the organization's guidelines, "competent adults have the right to refuse medical treatment."

She said that use of a ventilator would be considered "medical treatment" but declined to comment specifically on the court case.

BMA guidelines draw a line between intentional killing and the "withdrawal of treatment in a way that will foreseeably result in the patient's death."

"Medical treatment can legally and ethically be withdrawn when it is futile in that it cannot accomplish any improvement, when it would not be in the patient's best interest to continue treatment or when the patient has refused further treatment," the code states.

However, the organization believes that patients should not have a right "to insist that doctors end patients' lives."

Andy Berry, a spokesman with anti-euthanasia group Alert, said he hoped the court would reject the woman's case.

"I can understand why the patient might be worried about rehabilitation and depressed about the shock of becoming disabled," Berry said. "But with proper treatment and care, she will be able to find a new life."

Pretty case

The High Court case has drawn comparisons with the battle waged by Diane Pretty, a woman with a degenerative neurological condition who is suing for the right to allow her husband to end her life.

The High Court and the House of Lords turned down Pretty's petition, but she has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. A decision is expected by the end of this month.

Alison Davis, a spokeswoman with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said that judges in the Pretty case ruled that the Human Rights Act established a right to live, but not a "right to die."

"If this woman is allowed to die, it will send a message to all disabled people that their lives are not worth living," she said.

Davis, who has spina bifida and is herself paralyzed, said that at one point she took steps to end her own life.

"Had euthanasia been legal, I probably would have requested it at that point," she said. "I was saved by being around people who were able to provide support, and I eventually came to understand that dependency is not undignified. What the woman involved in the High Court case needs is better support."

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