Woman in coma allowed to die

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The Independent Online
A woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state for the past four years is to be allowed to die after a court ruled yesterday that doctors could stop artificially feeding her.

In a historic ruling, Lord Cameron of Lochbroom said treatment of Janet Johnston, who has been in PVS since 1992 as a result of seizures she suffered after taking a drugs overdose, could be discontinued.

PVS, as distinct from a coma, is defined by the Royal College of Physicians as where a patient has been in a vegetative state, unaware of state or environment, for more than 12 months.

Relatives said the decision had been agonising. Peter Johnston, who wanted his wife to die with dignity, wept as he heard the court's ruling. "It is the right decision," he said from his home in Lanarkshire. "I knew it was coming, but it is so hard to take. Janet was my only love and we were together for thirty years, but it will be a big relief when she finally gets peace."

In Scotland's first "right to die" ruling, Lord Cameron told the Court of Session in Edinburgh: "I am satisfied from the evidence that it is no longer possible to suggest that the continuance of the treatment . . . is of any benefit to her."

His judgment was postponed for a day after a lawyer appointed to represent Mrs Johnston's interests made a final appeal for her life. Colin McEachran QC said there were many cases of coma victims showing signs of recovery after many months and that science always offered hope.

Lord Cameron, however, said it would be a "dereliction of the court's duty" not to grant the ruling sought by the Law Hospital NHS Trust in Lanarkshire, allowing her to die.

The hospital, supported by medical opinion from four independent sources, had told the court that Mrs Johnston was in a "persistent vegetative state with no prospect of recovery".

Dr John Browning, Law Hospital's medical director, said once artificial feeding is withdrawn Mrs Johnston would be expected to die within 10 to 14 days. "These steps will be handled with compassion and sensitivity," he added.

As news of yesterday's ruling reached families with experience of parents and children in PVS, some reacted with anger and disbelief. Eileen Baldwin, whose daughter came round from a seven-month coma, condemned yesterday's decision as "like murder". Mrs Baldwin, of Gravesend, said: "I would never have given up."

But Mr Johnston said: "Nobody understands how I feel . . . you just couldn't understand the stress and the pain."