A matter of life and death

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Abstract

Cases concerning the withdrawal or withholding of artificial nutrition and hydration from patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state raise difficult medical, legal and ethical questions including the diagnosis and classification of disorders of consciousness, the legal processes to be followed, and the legal and ethical principles to be applied when making decisions. There is also an issue as to whether it is necessary or appropriate for such decisions to be taken by judges. This article, based on a lecture given in Oxford in October 2016, considers a number of these issues and concludes that any consideration of the question from the patient’s point of view must include an objective analysis of what is in his or her best interests, as well as subjective expressions of wishes and feelings. Whilst noting that it has been suggested that applications to the court should be confined to those cases where there is a dispute as to whether withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) would be in the patient’s best interests, the author proposes that, until such time as we have greater clarity and understanding about the disorders of consciousness, and about the legal and ethical principles to be applied, there remains a need for independent oversight and that applications to the court should continue to be obligatory in all cases where the withdrawal of ANH is proposed, at least for the time being.

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