UK Judge Protects Life of Minimally Conscious Woman

But Theologian Warns of «Arbitrary Line»

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By Kathleen Naab

LONDON, OCT. 2, 2011 ( Family members of a 52-year-old woman in England have lost a court battle in which they were trying to gain permission to end the woman’s life by removing food and water.

The woman, referred to in the case as M, is minimally conscious, meaning she has limited awareness, a state considered a step above the so-called persistent vegetative state. She suffered brain damage from viral encephalitis eight years ago.

High Court judge Scott Baker last Wednesday declared in his ruling that the factor carrying «substantial weight» in his judgment «is the preservation of life.»

«Best interest»

Nevertheless, the judge’s 76-page ruling manifests the shaky foundation on which he made his decision.

«Although not an absolute rule, the law regards the preservation of life as a fundamental principle,» he observed in his ruling.

He continued, «M does experience pain and discomfort, and her disability severely restricts what she can do.»

The judge said that he «considered all the evidence,» and found «that she does have some positive experiences and importantly that there is a reasonable prospect that those experiences can be extended by a planned program of increased stimulation.»

«Having weighed up all the relevant facts, I conclude that it is not in M’s best interests for artificial nutrition and hydration to be withdrawn,» the judge asserted.

Faulty premise

E. Christian Brugger, the chair of moral theology at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and a ZENIT columnist, evaluated the case in this way: «Of the two directions the judge could have gone, he clearly chose the better direction.»

«But his analysis includes the faulty premise that death is sometimes in a patient’s ‘best interest;’ that life can be ‘of no further benefit’ to someone. We know this is incorrect,» Brugger stated. 

The theologian noted how courts in the United States and in the United Kingdom have «normalized the legal conclusion that persons may be rightly deprived of food and water when they have suffered irreversible loss of consciousness, which M hasn’t.»

Brugger cautioned that «if — and this is the crucial point — someone’s life may really reach a point of being ‘no longer worth living,’ then the arbitrary line drawn till now at consciousness may be redrawn at ‘minimal consciousness.'» 

He concluded, «It is not alarmist to fear that before long, lives precisely like M’s will be judged to be of such a ‘poor quality’ that courts will enforce on their behalf the complete withholding of hydration and nutrition.»

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