Doctors can end life-support after rights test case

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Doctors have been given permission to end the "living deaths" of two women with brain damage by withdrawing their artificial life supports.

Doctors have been given permission to end the "living deaths" of two women with brain damage by withdrawing their artificial life supports.

The women's case went before the High Court to test the effect of the Human Rights Act, introduced on Monday, on the right of judges to give doctors the power to end treatment in such cases.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the head of the High Court Family Division, agreed to make the declarations after hearing from representatives of both the hospital trusts involved and the women, who have been diagnosed as being in a Permanent Vegetative State (PVS).

In both cases, Dame Elizabeth said the women, identified only as Ms H, aged 36, and Mrs M, aged 49, lacked the capacity to make decisions as to their future medical treatment. She said it was not in their best interests to continue artificial nutrition and hydration.

The judge said all those treating the women could lawfully discontinue life-sustaining treatment and could instead supply treatment and care to ensure they died with dignity.

During the hearing, Dame Elizabeth was told that court decisions beginning in 1993 with the case of Tony Bland, survivor of the Hillsborough disaster, did not infringe on the rights to life enshrined in the Human Rights Act.

John Grace QC, representing the hospitals, both in northern England, said of the women's conditions: "Expert independent witnesses agree they are undoubtedly cases of PVS, described as a twilight zone of suspended animation where death commences whilst life continues. A living death."

He said the medical technology that was keeping them alive did not exist when the European Convention on Human Rights was formulated in 1950.

It was accepted by Ben Emmerson QC, representing the two patients, that the principles laid down by the House of Lords in the Bland case complied with the Convention and that the declarations did not infringe the Human Rights Act.

The hospital trust treating Ms H said in a statement: "The decision today represents a further stage in what has been, and continues to be, a difficult and very sad time for everyone involved in this tragic case. The application was made only after a very thorough and rigorous process of seeking independent medical opinion and discussion with the family.

"The trust wishes to stress that it has at all times sought to act in the best interests of the patient."

Ms H had suffered from epilepsy and earlier this year had a cardiac arrest that left her in a vegetative state.

The hospital treating Mrs M, who was left brain damaged by an anaesthetic accident during a gynaecological operation overseas, said: "It is the wish of the family and those responsible for the medical and nursing care of this patient that she is permitted to end her life peacefully and with dignity."

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