Judge rejects ‘minimally conscious’ right to die case

By Phil Scullion

A 'minimally conscious' brain-damaged woman should not be allowed to die, a high court judge has ruled.

The landmark decision over the 52-year-old, who was referred to in court as 'M', comes against the wishes of her family who argue she is in pain and that artificial feeding and hydration should be withdrawn.

The family's application was opposed by the health authority responsible for M's care on the grounds that her life is "not without positive elements".

She became severely brain damaged eight-and-a-half years ago but whilst initially thought to be in a vegetative state subsequent tests showed she is on the edge of awareness, or 'minimally conscious'.

Mr Justice Baker said the "unique" case raised "very important issues of principle".

He said that M did have "some positive experiences" and that there was a "reasonable prospect" that those experiences were extendable.

"The factor which does carry substantial weight, in my judgment, is the preservation of life. Although not an absolute rule, the law regards the preservation of life as a fundamental principle," he added.

In 1993 the House of Lords ruled that treatment such as feeding tubes could be removed if keeping a patient alive was not to the patient's benefit.

Since that ruling 43 patients in a persistent vegetative state have died following a ruling from a judge that their treatment may be withdrawn.

This case has proved different because M is minimally conscious.

Yogi Amin, a partner with law firm Irwin Mitchell, spoke to the media on behalf of M's family.

He said: "They love her dearly and want only what is best for her, and it has been desperately difficult for them to make this application to court for treatment to be withdrawn.

"However, the judge has decided in this particular case, after considering all the evidence, that balancing the benefits and disbenefits to M, does not fall on the side of withdrawing treatment.

"This is a very important judgment. The law has been clarified and, going forward, in all such cases of patients who are in a minimally conscious state, the high court does now have the power to decide on whether it is in that patient's best interests for treatment to continue, or whether the patient should be allowed to die naturally, with dignity."