These tragic cases hit the headlines every few years. A loving family applies to the courts for permission to stop “life sustaining treatment” to allow a loved-one in a persistent vegetative state to “die with dignity”. The “life sustaining treatment” bit is just some weasel words that mean removing their feeding tubes and letting them starve to death. Now I don’t question the love that the family has, or the agony and torment they’re going through, or their desire to do whatever is best for their loved one, but I do have two serious concerns.
My first concern is the method. I really do mean that weasel words are used to conceal the real horror of what’s being done. If the patient has a heart attack and the medics do not resuscitate, that’s fine with me, but that’s not what this is all about. This is about actively bringing about their death. It’s about removing their oxygen supply if they have one, and removing their feeding tubes. If they’re not able to breathe without assistance, they will suffocate. If they are able to breathe, they will stay alive until they have starved or dehydrated.
I’m not happy about that.
If all the expert medical opinion is agreed, and all the tests are conclusive, and no mistakes have been made, and the patient can be considered medically and legally dead, then I can understand the desire to bring a peaceful end to a tragic situation. But still. By starvation? Would we treat a dog like that? If we judged that a much-loved pet had to be “put to sleep” – more weasel words – would we be happy if the vet put the pet into a cage and left it there until it had starved to death? Then why would we treat a human being like that?
My second concern is alluded to above. What if they’re wrong? Mistakes are made and misdiagnoses do occur. Medical malpractice lawyers in America make a very lucrative living from such cases and while the culture of litigation here in the UK is different, I’m sure we make just as many mistakes. They will be very rare mistakes. But what proportion of potentially recovering patients to patients with no prospects of recovery would we be happy with? How many living people must we kill before we become uncomfortable with this whole process?
We can combine my two concerns into one hypothetical. Let’s say that the patient really is just a breathing cadaver. Why shouldn’t we let surgeons harvest the organs while they’re still fresh? If we are so convinced the patient can feel no pain, where’s the harm? But if we are still a bit squeamish about it, if we don’t like the way the body twitches when the surgeon cuts the heart out, then why don’t we just put a bullet through the brain? Far better than damaging useful transplant organs by using poisonous gasses or chemicals to terminate life.
Whatever we do, it has to be quick and humane. Starving to death is neither and we are just dancing around the issue. Should a court find that circumstances are such as to warrant life support being withdrawn, it should also rule that measures can be taken to actively end the life. It cannot be right that a court can sanction a barbarous act and encourage the suffering which will be the likely result. If everyone is so convinced there would be no suffering if life support is withdrawn, then do the job properly and bring peace to all involved.
Finally, I would not have been prompted to write this piece were it not for an article in the Telegraph today reporting that a mother is applying for just such a court order concerning her daughter. She has been in a “minimally conscious state” since February 2003, a truly tragic situation. But what was the bigger aspect of the story that piqued the Telegraph’s interest? It was that the mother has also obtained an injunction to protect her family’s privacy and this was the first to explicitly cover social media, citing Facebook and Twitter by name.
So an upcoming death by legally sanctioned starvation is not as big a story as anything about Twitter is. Such is modern reporting.