Bits and Pieces

Thursday, February 26, 2004

UK 'Right to Life' Test Case Begins

LONDON (Reuters) - A British man dying from a degenerative brain condition began a test case at London's High Court Thursday against rules which allow doctors to withdraw artificial feeding from terminally ill patients, possibly leading to their deaths.

Wheelchair-bound Leslie Burke, 44, who suffers from cerebellar ataxia which will ultimately kill him, has brought his "right-to-life" challenge against the UK's General Medical Council.

Under current UK law, doctors can withdraw feeding tubes from a patient if they decide it to be in the best interest of the patient (i.e. they will never recover, and their life is being prolonged needlessly). Burke wants the right to be kept alive until he passes away naturally.

But at what point does it become cruel to keep a patient alive? In Burke's case, his degenerative disease will leave him immobile but with an active mind. He could be locked in the prison of his body indefinitely, with no way of communicating his wish to die to doctors. This is the dillema faced by the courts, as this test case will affect thousands of other such patients.

I dread to think of the thousands who would choose to be kept alive without considering the ramifications of their choice. I remember watching an old black and white horror film as a child (the TV itself was black and white, so the film may well have been in colour). A man had been attacked and left to die in a forest. His body was recovered and prepared for burial, and he was taken to his funeral in a glass-topped casket (maybe that part was my memory playing games with me). The terrifying part of the scene was that throughout this the man was fully aware of what was going on. He silently screamed to the pallbearers to let him out. The final scene was shot looking up from the point of view of the man, watching desperately as the soil was shovelled onto the casket.

That scene terrified me for years, and the memory of it makes me hope that Burke loses his case. The price of his right to live may be too high.
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