Disabled campaigners have warned that a Supreme Court ruling has removed a vital safeguard that protected the lives of brain-damaged patients who have been left unconscious.
The Supreme Court ruled this week that families and doctors will no longer have to seek a court order if they agree to end the life of a patient with a “prolonged disorder of consciousness” (PDOC)* by withdrawing food and fluids.
The court had been hearing the case of a man, Y, who never regained consciousness after a heart attack left him severely brain-damaged and in a permanent vegetative state (PVS).
Y had to be kept alive with water and liquid nutrition, but his family and doctors agreed that it was in his best interests for this to be withdrawn so he could be left to die.
The NHS trust that was treating him sought a declaration from the courts that they could do so without an order from the Court of Protection.
This was granted by the high court, but the official solicitor appealed to the Supreme Court, which this week unanimously dismissed the appeal.
Disabled campaigners have raised grave concerns about the judgment.
Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK) said that it campaigns against changes in the law on assisted suicide and does not comment on issues outside this area but was still “deeply concerned about anything which leads to vulnerable disabled people being put at a greater risk regarding their life chances”.
Dennis Queen, an NDY UK member, said: “In my personal opinion the removal of independent oversight of the Court of Protection [in the case of doctors deliberately killing patients] is severely damaging to the individual’s right to live and decide.
“It could be said to begin to allow euthanasia by the back door.
“The difference between removing mechanical life support from a brain-dead patient and removing basic sustenance from a patient with some brain damage is phenomenal.
“It’s the difference between allowing somebody to die and actively killing them.
“PVS patients can and do recover. The consequences of their brain damage can vary wildly.
“People this has happened to are part of our network. We know some people remember every single thing, too.”
Queen added: “Death by dehydration is a torturous way to die. Completely unlike instant suffocation, it typically takes weeks to die during which internal elements of the body literally rip open, including organs, the tongue and so on. It’s not a humane way to die.