Right to Life/Right to Die in the UK
Who has the right to decide whether a patient's quality of life is too poor to warrant life-prolonging treatment?
That question will be put to three appeal court judges today in one of the most important right-to-life appeals to come before the English courts in recent years.
The judges, headed by the master of the rolls, Lord Phillips, will have to decide where the line is drawn between patients' autonomy and doctors' duty to act in what they believe is their patients' best interests.
The General Medical Council is appealing against a high court ruling last July that its guidance to doctors on the withholding and withdrawing of life-prolonging treatment is unlawful in some respects and breaches human rights.
That ruling was won by Leslie Burke, who has a progressive degenerative disease which, while leaving him fully sentient, will eventually deprive him of the power to feed himself.
Mr Burke, 45, from Lancaster, who has cerebellar ataxia, took the case to court because he feared that when the time came doctors would decide his quality of life was insufficient to warrant prolonging it.
He feared reaching the point where, unable to communicate, he would be denied food and water and would take two to three weeks to die of starvation or thirst.
The case is seen as so important that the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, the Disability Rights Commission, the official solicitor, the Catholic Bishops Conference for England and Wales, Patient Concern, Medical Ethics Alliance, Alert - Defending Vulnerable People's Right to Live, and the British section of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life have all been granted permission to make submissions to the court.