LONDON, July 28, 2005 ( – A UK appeals court has sanctioned the wishes of a doctor’s group, allowing doctors the right to decide when to remove food and water from patients, unless the patient has expressed a desire not to be starved or dehydrated to death.

Leslie Burke, who successfully challenged the General Medical Council (GMC) guidance on the treatment of the terminally ill last July, initially worried that doctors would deny him nutrition and hydration if his neurological condition deteriorates to the point he cannot communicate his wish to continue living. Now Burke simply wants to alter the law to protect those who are not able to express their wish to live, or who never had the competency or opportunity to express that wish.

GMC lawyer Philip Havers claimed the ruling in favour of Burke last year put doctors “in an impossibly difficult position, for a doctor should never be required to provide a particular form of treatment to a patient which he does not consider clinically appropriate,” according to a BBC report. The GMC outrageously claims that feeding and giving water to a person who can no longer do it for themselves is a form of treatment, which may be “dangerous” or “clinically inappropriate.”

The new ruling means that a physician’s decision to end a patient’s life – based on his judgement of a patient’s quality of life – supersedes even the wishes of family members such as spouses, children, or even parents – assuming a person has expressed no end-of-life wishes, or the patient has never had the competence to express their end-of-life wishes.

Disability Rights Commission spokesman Liz Sayce told the BBC, “The judgement is fine for people who have the capacity to speak. But the difficulty is when you don’t have that capacity, it will be back to the doctor taking the decision entirely themselves.”

Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, commented that, according to British common law, a doctor is not required to provide treatment if the treatment is considered to be burdensome. The difficulty, Schadenberg emphasized, is in the definition of treatment. Food and hydration comprise elements of basic care required by all, and is not treatment.

“Leslie Burke will not be starved to death by this ruling,” Schadenberg explained. “The problem is for people who never gave any instructions or never expressed a wish to receive food and fluids when competent.” Schadenberg also warned that the ruling authorizes doctors to commit euthanasia by removing food and fluids in patients who have not expressed a wish to be fed and watered.

“The UK court decision affects Canadian law as much as UK law,” Schadenberg added. He explained that Canadians are bound by the same common law as in the UK, so precedents set there are equally binding in Canada. “This is a bad decision,” he said.

See related coverage:
  UK Doctor’s Group Appeals Man’s Right not to be Deprived of Nutrition and Hydration