British Association for the Advancement of Science: Medical care 'can be withdrawn'

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

MEDICAL treatment could be withdrawn from patients if it would not improve their life, even if they would die as a result, according to Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York.

Discussing the case of Tony Bland, who had been left in a persistent vegtetative state as a result of the Hillsborough disaster, Dr Habgood said it was wrong to stop feeding such people, but it would not have been wrong to stop antibiotic treatment even if it meant that he died from an infection.

'In the case of Tony Bland, it was clear that no medical treatment could do anything to enhance his attributes as a person and there was, therefore, no medical obligation to provide it.'

Dr Habgood is well qualified to consider the theology of such cases as he lectured in physiology before he entered the Church.

He dismissed 'crude ideas about the soul leaving the body at the instant of death' on the grounds that death itself 'is more and more seen as a process rather than a single event'.

Dr Habgood said 'different parts of the body die at different times. Hair, for instance, continues to grow on corpses. Transplant surgery has brought home to many people the relative independence of different organs'.

Death was being seen more as 'the loss of conscious sentient life rather than the irreversible cessation of all bodily activity'.

He said Christians need not be concerned by a change from the traditional view of death because 'if our identity is, as it were, held in the mind of God, then the continuity of the self does not depend on what is happening to our bodies and there is nothing in our bodies which departs when we die'.

Dr Habgood also pointed out that animals, particularly higher primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas, might be considered to have soul-like properties.

In a statement which would anger American fundamentalists, he said: 'One of the long-term implications of acceptance of evolution is that there is no precise break between other animals and ourselves.' One difference was man's capacity to relate to God - 'another way of expressing what used to be called the soul'. But we are seeing similar capacities in primates, he said, 'so may there not be a relationship with animals which has to be respected and so they must be treated with care?'