Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bioethics: the science of figuring out who we can kill

I often mention the name Leslie Burke as a kind of paradigm, what to watch out for in the future. Burke was a postman until he was struck with a type of motor neurone disease that would eventually render him incapable of communicating. Knowing that the courts and bioethics experts had decided that people can be killed by doctors who decide that a patient's life is no longer worth sustaining, he, perhaps somewhat optimistically, went to those same courts (and all the way to the EU Court of Human Rights) to ask for the right not to be killed by his doctor when his turn came.

He lost.

But another case is actually the seminal one that marked the turn of the tide in medicine against trying to figure out how best to treat people and towards trying to figure out how to get away with killing them...for their own "best interests" of course. Nothing to do with money...

Tony died nine days after the tube was removed. Alison highlights the reinterpretation by the judiciary of the traditional medical meaning of the patient’s “best interests” to now include death by removal of food and fluids. More disturbingly, that reinterpretation represents a shift from considering the burdensomeness or futility of treatment to the burdensomeness or futility of a person’s life.

Two names to remember then.

Tony Bland: the first man to be deliberately killed by doctors using the now-favoured method of dehydration (no need for Deep Sedation in his case).

Leslie Burke: the first man to be told that there is no such thing in Britain as a right to decide ahead of time that he does not want to be killed this way.

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