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Terminally-ill patient Leslie Burke, 46, has lost the last stage of a legal challenge for the right to receive nutrition and drink when he is close to death, his lawyers said.

Burke, who has a degenerative brain condition, fears artificial nutrition could be stopped against his wishes when he cannot talk anymore.

Burke was seeking to overturn a ruling made by the Court of Appeal in London last year, which said it would be lawful for doctors to refuse him artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH). The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg said in a written judgement released to Burke and the government last week that it had declined his appeal.

Burke learned of the court’s decision while attending the funeral of his brother in Ireland who died after suffering from the same genetic condition, Friedreich’s ataxia. The condition causes lack of coordination, but does not affect mental faculties.

Burke said he was “extremely disappointed” with the ruling. “I only hope that if I am lucky enough to be in hospital, that the doctors treating me will not believe at some stage that it will be in my best interests for ANH to be withdrawn even when death is imminent, effectively letting me die of starvation and thirst when I am no longer able to communicate my wishes. I will be making a living will, even though it will give me no comfort, for as it stands living wills are not legally binding and can be disregarded if the wishes contained in it conflict with the doctor’s view.”

The Strasbourg court said that it was satisfied that the presumption of UK law was in favour of prolonging life wherever possible in accordance with the spirit of the Convention on Human Rights, Burke’s lawyers said.

As a result it decided that Burke had failed to establish that under UK law he faced a real or imminent risk that food or drink would be withdrawn leading to a painful death by thirst. Burke’s lawyer, Muiris Lyons of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, said his client had now done all he could legally.

“Leslie wanted to have his position in law clarified now, before he loses competency to determine his own best interests. “The Court has effectively determined that his application is premature,” he said.

“However, once he loses the capacity to make his own decisions he will also lose the ability to make such an application in his own right. It is a “Catch 22″ situation for him,” he added. [LONDON Reuters,]