Dying, Burke’s Legal Victory Last Year Overturned (2005)

A man who is terminally ill and fears that doctors may allow him to die of thirst said he was “disappointed” after the Court of Appeal overturned an earlier judgment in his favour. Last July, the British High Court granted a landmark court challenge by Leslie Burke, 45, and declared that key sections of General Medical Council (GMC) guidelines regarding tube feeding, hydration, and withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment were unlawful. Burke, a wheelchair user with cerebellar ataxia, a degenerative nervous system disorder, had feared that, once he could no longer swallow and communicate, doctors would decide that his “quality of life” was no longer sufficient to warrant his receiving food and fluids through a tube. High Court Judge Munby agreed with Burke and ordered the GMC to revise its guidelines to indicate that doctors must provide food and fluids to a competent patient who requests them, as well as to an incompetent patient with an advance request for such treatment. [www.internationaltaskforce.org/iua30.htm] But 28July05, three appeal judges allowed an appeal by the GMC, backed by the British government, against the ruling, setting aside 6 declarations by the trial judge. Permission to appeal was refused. At the time of the appeal hearing, Burke explained that he is not asking for radical treatment to extend his life. “I just do not want to effectively die of starvation and thirst which may take up to two weeks. I want as far as possible to be able to approach the end of my life with dignity.” [Gulf Daily News 17May05] Lawyer Philip Sales, representing Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, told the panel of 3 appellate...