Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

May 17, 2005

Do you have to sue to avoid being starved?

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:24 am

BatesLine has the story of Leslie Burke, of Lancaster (England). Mr. Burke has cerebellar ataxia — a degenerative neurological condition similar to multiple sclerosis — which may eventually remove his ability to swallow, and he does not want to be starved to death. He wants a feeding tube. But the doctors don’t want to give it to him. Or at least, they don’t want to have to give it to him if they don’t want to, notwithstanding his expressed wishes now and the fact that he will in all likelihood be fully conscious even if he does lose the ability to swallow and/or speak.

Mr. Burke won in the British High Court last year — but the doctors are appealing. For the right to starve him to death without his consent, if they decide he’s sick enough that his life isn’t worth living. Even if he thinks it is.

British doctors’ oversight group challenges disabled man’s right to choose artifical hydration

The right of the disabled to choose to continue to receive food and water is being contested in court in the United Kingdom.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the General Medical Council (GMC) is appealing a 2004 British High Court decision that gave a terminally ill Lancaster man the right to insist on receiving food and water through a tube, regardless of the opinion of his doctors.

Last summer, the High Court ruled in favor of Leslie Burke, who was diagnosed over 20 years ago with a degenerative neurological condition that will eventually cause him to lose the ability to swallow, while still retaining full awareness. Burke does not want to die of thirst, a process that can take two to three weeks. Because he may also lose the ability to speak by that time, he wants to ensure that his wishes are followed while he can still express them. Burke went to the court to challenge GMC guidelines that would let the doctors, not him, decide whether he should have a feeding tube:

GMC guidelines published in 2002 tell doctors it is their responsibility, rather than that of the patient, to decide whether to withhold or withdraw life-prolonging treatment.

Paragraph 81 effectively allows doctors to withdraw artificial nutrition or hydration from a patient who is not dying because it “may cause suffering, or be too burdensome in relation to the possible benefits”.

Read the whole thing.


Medical ethics/law expert Welsey J. Smith comments on the case.

And Leslie Burke, the patient, has a fascinating web site.

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