UK law allows feeding tubes and hydration removal

A UK law change is wrong says an English bishop. The Supreme Court has agreed to allow feeding tubes and hydration to be removed from patients in a permanent vegetative state without having to wait for the court’s permission.

So long as physicians and families agree, that is.

While he recognises the challenges the patients’ families and carers face, Bishop John Wilson says artificial nutrition and hydration “are not treatment,” so should not be withdrawn.

They keep [the patient] alive as part of their basic care. They prevent death by malnutrition and dehydration.

These patients “are not dying as such but remain dependent on medical and nursing care.

“The person breathes without assistance and follows patterns of sleeping and waking, although without any detectable external response.”

According to the UK’s National Health Service, people in a vegetative state may open their eyes, wake up and fall asleep at regular intervals and have basic reflexes.

However, they don’t show any meaningful responses such as following an object with their eyes or responding to voices.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales addressed the question of artificial feeding and hydration in cases of patients in a persistent vegetative state in their 2004 teaching document Cherishing Life.

“There is a basic level of nursing care that is demanded by human solidarity. We all recognise that leaving a patient cold, unclean, in pain or without human contact for significant periods of time would fall below a decent standard of care.

“Within the health service, great efforts are made to maintain high standards in this area, despite the pressure of resources and limited staff. In general, providing food and fluids should also be considered basic care,” the statement said.

At the same time, the bishops’ statement noted that when patients are in “the final phase of dying” they should not be burdened with excessively intrusive treatment.

It may be that “efforts to place or replace a feeding tube may well be excessive or burdensome” they said.

According to the BBC, each year in England and Wales there are around 1,500 new cases of trauma causing a persistent vegetative state.


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