July 28, 2005
UK Appeals Court overturns ‘right-to-food’ verdict
LONDON (Reuters) - The body that regulates British doctors
won an appeal on Thursday against a ruling that gave a
terminally ill patient the right to stop doctors from
withdrawing food and drink when he will be close to death.
Leslie Burke, 45, who has a degenerative brain condition,
fears artificial nutrition could be stopped against his wishes
when he cannot talk anymore.
The Court of Appeal overturned an earlier High Court
ruling, which said that any decision over withdrawal of
nutrition and hydration from those who are terminally ill
should be left in the hands of the patients.
"We have come to the clear view that this appeal must be
allowed and the declarations made by the judge set aside," said
Lord Phillips, Master of the Rolls, and one of Britain's most
"It is our view that Mr. Burke's fears are addressed by the
law as it currently stands."
Burke has cerebellar ataxia, a general term for nervous
system disorders that cause lack of coordination, but do not
affect mental faculties.
The court held that current General Medical Council
guidelines, which Burke was challenging, already provided the
protection he sought.
It argued there was nothing to suggest Burke would not be
allowed to die naturally rather than have his death speeded up
by being deprived of food and water when his condition
However, it warned that a doctor's failure to give
artificial food and water to a competent patient who wanted to
live could constitute murder if that patient later died.
"Obviously I am slightly disappointed I have not got what I
wished for -- the GMC guidelines have to be changed to show
they are not biased in the area of people being refused
treatment," Burke said after the verdict.
Burke's lawyer, Paul Conrathe, argued that Thursday's
decision vindicated his client.
"Today's judgment is a technical victory for the GMC, but
is a significant practical victory for Mr. Burke and others in
his situation," said Conrathe.
"The Court of Appeal has confirmed today that patients like
Mr Burke who want food and water have to be given it."
The GMC said it hoped Burke would now be reassured he would
get the treatment he needed.
"We have always said that causing patients to die from
starvation and dehydration is absolutely unacceptable practice
and unlawful," said Professor Graeme Catto, the GMC president.