Patient 'should not be left to starve'

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Tony Bland, the Hillsborough coma victim, should not be allowed to starve to death simply because it had been asserted his life was not worth living, the Court of Appeal was told yesterday.

The Official Solicitor - who represents the interests of those incapable of helping themselves - said that disconnecting Mr Bland's feeding tube would be murder. He was challenging a High Court ruling 10 days ago that doctors can lawfully disconnect a feeding tube and let Mr Bland, who has been in an irreversible coma for more than three years, die 'with dignity'.

James Mumby QC, for the Official Solicitor, said the ruling by Sir Stephen Brown, President of the Family Division, went further than any UK court had gone. 'The President has held there can be circumstances in which it is lawful for a doctor to starve his patient to death - even though the patient is neither dying, nor suffering any pain or distress.'

Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls, and Lords Justices Butler-Sloss and Hoffmann are being asked to give a definitive ruling on whether Mr Bland, 21, who suffered crush injuries during the 1989 disaster at Hillsborough football ground, should be allowed to die. Mr Bland's lungs were compressed and punctured, starving his brain of oxygen and sending him into a Persistent Vegetative State from which experts say he will never recover.

His parents, Allan and Barbara Bland, who were not in court, say their son is condemned to a living death. They are supporting the Airedale NHS Trust, which cares for him, and which brought the successful High Court action.

But Mr Mumby argued that the President was wrong to rule that tube feeding amounted to a medical treatment which could be stopped. Since Mr Bland was not suffering, there was no basis in law for exonerating those caring for him from their primary duty to treat, nurse and feed him. 'Any breach of that duty which results in death, where death is the intended result, is murder,' he said.

Mr Mumby said he was concerned about how far the courts had moved in relation to the treatment of the mentally incompetent in the last three years - from the right to sterilise an adult to withdrawing life-saving treatment.

Robert Francis QC, for the hospital authority, said that to withdraw the feeding tube would not result in doctors starving him to death but in their failing to avert his death, which would be caused by his injuries from the disaster.

'Starvation implies not only a positive act of hastening death on the part of the doctors, but also death with anything but dignity and with a degree of suffering. The evidence is quite contrary to that,' Mr Francis added.

Mr Bland had in many ways been reduced to the 'level of a machine which processes food'.

'I don't seek to reduce his humanity, but is his humanity best served by imposing on him this regime of treatment?' he asked.

The hearing continues today.