Leslie Burke, who has fought his way through the courts to obtain the assurance that artificial nutrition and hydration will not be withdrawn from him once he is unable to communicate his wishes, has lost his argument in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Mr Burke suffers from a progressive terminal neurological disease which will eventually cause him to lose the ability to communicate. He is concerned that under UK law he will lose control over the treatment he receives once he is no longer able to make his wishes known and that doctors treating him will not be required to obtain the approval of the court before withdrawing life-sustaining nourishment, despite Mr Burke having expressed his wish that such treatment should not be withheld.
The ECHR’s view was that the guidelines issued to doctors by the General Medical Council on when life-sustaining treatment should be withdrawn did not change the law in the UK, which in general terms is committed to the prolongation of life where it is possible and in the patient’s best interests. Medical staff can take account of an advance statement (‘living will’) as regards treatment to be given in such circumstances, if one has been prepared. They must also give consideration to the views of the patient and those close to him. If there is a conflict, they can go to court for approval of the proposed treatment plan. This should not normally be necessary and in the ECHR’s view it is not possible to determine in advance the appropriateness of any specific medical treatment.