Terminally ill patients fight for 'right to live'

New landmark court case could force doctors to prolong treatment even if it is medically futile
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The Independent Online

Terminally ill patients could soon win the right to "treatment on demand" even when it is medically useless, say doctors' leaders. They believe it will lead to further cases such as that of baby Charlotte Wyatt.

A judge ruled last Thursday that the hospital caring for the desperately ill 11-month-old girl would no longer have to try to revive her because she was in such severe pain, despite the wishes of her parents that she be kept alive.

Now the British Medical Association is concerned about another "right to live" case going to the Court of Appeal. If they lose, hospitals fear the NHS will have to pay huge bills for prolonging the lives of the dying against the professional views of doctors.

The case centres on Leslie Burke, 44, a former postman from Lancaster who is suffering from a degenerative, incurable brain disease. He believes that when he nears death and is unable to communicate, doctors will stop giving him food and water.

To the shock of the profession, a judge ruled in July that it was unlawful for the GMC to allow doctors to withhold nutrition against his wishes - a ruling which could totally transform the treatment of the incurably and terminally ill.

Ministers are watching the GMC's appeal against the decision with concern. The NHS could also face heavy legal bills from fighting other "right to live" cases.

The rights of patients and their families to demand medical care were at the centre of the case of Charlotte, who is critically ill at St Mary's Hospital, Portsmouth. The infant, born three months premature weighing just 1lb, has already been revived three times due to her lung and heart problems.

Mr Justice Hedley ruled that doctors were right not to try to resuscitate Charlotte a fourth time because she was profoundly ill and enduring great pain. Reviving her would prolong her suffering and was not in her best interests, he said.

Doctors' leaders believe the fundamental legal battle over a patient's "right to live" will be decided in Mr Burke's case.

Backed by the British Medical Association, the GMC insists that doctors have to be allowed to weigh whether giving medical treatment simply to prolong a life slightly will cause unnecessary pain, be medically futile and lead to unjustifiable costs.

Dr Michael Wilks, the head of the BMA's ethics committee, said: "This has huge and worrying implications for how we weigh clinical judgement against the wishes of the patient. We always act in the best interests of patients. Doctors shouldn't continue treatment beyond the point where it is beneficial."

But Mr Burke's lawyer, Paul Conrathe, said: "My client wants to be the person who determines the manner of his parting. He wants artificial nutrition and hydration until he naturally passes away."

It emerged yesterday that Darren Wyatt, 32, is barred by a family court order granted last year from having direct contact with his three children from an earlier marriage, which broke down several years ago.

His first wife, Amanda, told reporters her ex-husband had drunk heavily, used drugs and allegedly taken their children on pub crawls. Mr Wyatt is also alleged to have phoned staff at St Mary's hospital on Thursday evening, after the court judgment, and drunkenly threatened them. Staff called the local police, but did not make a formal complaint.

Darren and Debbie Wyatt, who were unavailable for comment, are thought to have sold their story to the Daily Mail and GMTV. Mr Wyatt has insisted he is now a practising Christian and he and his wife are praying for Charlotte's life.