When is it right to turn off Life Support?

The Daily Mail recently reported a case of a 74 year old woman in a minimally conscious state, whose daughter has won a court case to have her mother’s life support turned off. The NHS Trust involved, acting in the patient’s “best interests”, wished to continue treatment, but this was over-ruled by the judge. It appeared very unlikely that the woman’s condition would ever improve, though with continuing treatment she might live for three to five years.

The case turned on an old email the daughter found in which her mother said “Did you see that thing on dementia? Get the pillow ready if I get that way!” The judge took this as evidence of the woman’s wishes not to be kept alive. The case has strong parallels with that of police officer Paul Briggs.

These cases highlight the importance of writing an advance decision, clarifying a person’s wishes for refusing treatment (including refusing artificial feeding and hydration), in the event that at some point in the future they are no longer able to make treatment decisions for themselves. With an advance decision to refuse treatment in place, everyone would clearly understand the patient’s wishes, and medical staff are legally required to follow the patients wishes regarding treatment refusal.

We owe it to both our well-meaning relatives and to our doctors, to avoid difficult conflicts like this where people with different opinions about what is best for us have to argue it out in court. It can’t be pleasant for them, whichever side of the argument they are on, and it certainly isn’t good for us if our wishes are not acted upon, or are delayed.

MDMD strongly encourages everyone to make an advance decision, regardless of age or current health. See our advice on end of life planning here. If you haven’t written yours, please do so… and then encourage others to write theirs.

Some might think that allowing someone to die by turning off artificial feeding and hydration is cruel, arguing instead for a right for euthanasia in such cases. When the person is in a coma, and with appropriate pain killers, the dying person will not suffer, even though the dying process may take around 2 weeks. Most importantly, turning off life support is currently legal in the UK, whereas euthanasia is not.