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The BBC's Catherine Marston
"Their right to life is guaranteed"
 real 56k

Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Court hears 'right to die' cases
Intensive care patient
The Act could block moves to allow PVS patients to die
The fledgling Human Rights Act should not stop doctors ending the life of patients trapped in a vegetative state, the High Court has been told.

Two cases involving patients in this condition are being heard at the High Court - in both, relatives want their lives to be ended.

However, a section of the new Act says that everyone's "right to life" should be protected by law.

It is thought that this provision, which came into force earlier this week, could have a possible impact on cases where doctors or relatives want to withdraw feeding from persistent vegetative state (PVS) patients.

Since the landmark Tony Bland ruling in 1993, in which doctors were allowed to stop feeding a young Hillsborough disaster trapped in PVS, the courts have given similar decisions in approximately 20 cases.

'Twilight zone'

PVS is a condition, often caused by oxygen starvation, in which a patient is unconscious, but can continue living indefinitely if fed and hydrated through a tube.

At the High Court on Thursday, John Grace QC, representing two hospitals caring for PVS patients, described their plight as a "twilight zone of suspended animation where death commences whilst life continues."

He called for the court to make a "critical evaluation" of the Bland decision in the light of the new Human Rights Act.

He said that the principles established by the 1993 case were "adequate protection" to comply with the new Act's provisions on "right to life".

The court heard about the first of the two cases, in which a 49-year-old woman, named only as Mrs M for legal reasons, was left severely brain damaged by an anaesthetic accident during a gynaecological operation overseas in 1997.

Although she responds to some stimuli, the doctors agree that these are only reflexes and that there is no possibility of recovery.

However, if feeding and hydration continues, doctors say she could live for 12 years or more.

If the life support is withdrawn, she would die within a fortnight, and doctors claim there would be no possible distress.

Cardiac arrest

Mr Grace said the second woman, referred to as Ms H, was now 36 suffered a cardiac arrest following an attack of pancreatitis in the US at Christmas 1999.

She has been in PVS since that date, and doctors have had problems maintaining her feeding since then.

The latest problem, a blocked feeding tube which would need fully-fledged treatment by doctor instead of simply nutrition, has prompted the court action.

Guidelines recommend that doctors should only consider withdrawal of feeding in patients who have been in PVS for more than a year.

The family are asking that the surgery does not take place and that she be allowed to die.

Lawyers for these two families are expected to argue such action is justified under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This states that: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

The Human Rights Act is expected to lead a flurry of new cases on the withdrawal of treatment by doctors.

It also expected to see challenges to postcode rationing within the NHS, which means patients are offered different levels of treatment depending on where they live.

The hearing was adjourned until Friday.

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