A man twice broke down weeping in court yesterday as he pleaded for the woman with whom he had shared his life to be allowed to die. The couple met in 1982, when he was 24 and she was 22, but she is now in hospital with brain damage that has left her incapable of speech or movement.
His plea for care home staff to stop feeding her by tube was supported by the woman's older sister, who also wept as she gave evidence.
They claimed that if the woman known as M – who cannot be identified for legal reasons – were able to express a wish, she would prefer death to being permanently dependent.
"It's not about us at all," her former partner, identified as S, said. "We can only speak up for her, nothing more. We are her voice. We have no ulterior motive. We just know who she was and her opinions."
Her older sister, known as B, pleaded that it was cruel to keep her alive. "I know in my heart of hearts that she would not want to live like that," B told the court. "She cannot enjoy a drink, a cup of tea or anything. She has got no pleasures in life. Just a daily routine of being taken out of bed, put in a chair and put back in bed. Shower, doubly incontinent. It is just awful. It's not life. It's existence. And I know she would not want that."
Staff at her care home say that they have detected slight signs that M is conscious of her surroundings. This includes reacting to other people. She also "moved her hand purposefully and in rhythm" when "Tiger Feet", a 1970s hit by Mud, was played. But her former partner and her sister argued that there was no prospect of her returning to being the person she had once been.
The case, being heard in the High Court, is believed to be the first time a court has been asked to rule on whether someone who is not in a persistent vegetative state should have their life support withdrawn.
M, who worked as a hairdresser, was due to go on holiday with her partner on 18 February 2003. That morning S was surprised that she had overslept. He woke her, but she was incoherent. She had a condition called viral encephalitis, which led to profound brain damage. After she had been in a coma for several weeks, she was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Later, the diagnosis was changed to minimally conscious state, which is just above PVS. Her medical condition is now stable, and at the age of 51, she has a life expectancy of 10 years.
Caroline Harry Thomas, representing the Official Solicitor, has claimed that switching off the life support system of someone who is minimally conscious and medically stable would be illegal.
During the hearing, which will last for several days, the court will hear from members of staff at the care home and other expert witnesses.Reuse content