Doctors who Allowed Suicidal Woman to Die Acted Lawfully: Coroner's Inquest

Doctors who allowed a young British woman to die in hospital after she swallowed poison and declared her intention to commit suicide acted lawfully, according to the findings of an inquest this week. Under the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the coroner's inquest ruled that doctors had no choice but to allow the woman to die after she had written a letter saying she did not want to be saved.

The Mental Capacity Act, passed by Tony Blair's Labour government, created "advance directives," or "living wills," which were ostensibly meant to allow terminally ill patients to decline treatment which could prolong their lives. According to that Act, doctors who violate such a document can be charged with criminal assault for treating patients against their wishes.

In October 2008, Kerrie Wooltorton, 26, swallowed anti-freeze and, after arriving at a Norwich hospital emergency ward, presented a suicide note asking doctors not to save her life. The doctors followed her request, claiming that her wishes were legally binding under the provisions of the Act.

Pro-life advocates in Britain have long warned that the Mental Capacity Act is an open door to legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide. SPUC Pro-Life, a leading anti-euthanasia group, has said that the case is clearly one of doctors assisting in a suicide, which remains a criminal offense. SPUC has argued that the case should be prosecuted as such "to highlight the perverse state of the law."

Anthony Ozimic, spokesman for SPUC Pro-Life, said, "It appears from press reports that doctors either did not have regard for the concerns of Miss Wooltorton's relatives, or that they ignored their wishes.

"The coroner's verdict in this case is disgraceful. It sends out the message that if you are depressed and attempt suicide, doctors need not treat you. Depressed people are being officially treated as worthless. It is clear that Miss Wooltorton's relatives regarded her as having committed suicide while suffering from depression."

Wooltorton, who was reportedly depressed about not being able to have children and had attempted suicide nine previous times, arrived at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital fully conscious and stated that she was "100 per cent aware of the consequences" of her actions. Wooltorton had called an ambulance, but claimed it was because she did not want to die "alone and in pain." After consulting legal advice, the attending physician decided to allow her to die.

Wooltorton's family has urged Parliament to revisit the Mental Capacity Act that Health Secretary Andy Burnham has said was never meant to be used in this way. Her father said, "I am ashamed to be English with the way the law stands. It is plain daft. Hospitals should not be allowed to let people die like this."

The Daily Telegraph quoted Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, Head of Ethics and Science at the British Medical Association, who confirmed the decision, saying that doctors must follow the patient's wishes when they are competent to make decisions for themselves.

She said, "The main issue for doctors in these cases is to determine a patient's mental capacity in deciding whether or not they want treatment to save their life."

She praised the Mental Capacity Act for having "clarified matters," saying it "establishes the legal framework for such decisions."

"However hard doctors find this issue, their ultimate aim is to act in the best interests of their patients, normally this means following competent patients' wishes."

The Wooltorton decision comes shortly after the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued guidelines that said that while the law prohibiting assisting suicide is not being overturned, people who help their relatives commit suicide will not be prosecuted as long as they do so without a view to personal gain.

George Pitcher, Religion Editor of Telegraph Media and an Anglican minister said that while the DPP guidelines are not directly related to the Woolterton case, they are part of a "new climate of creeping 'suicide rights' and stealth-euthanasia" in Britain.

He added that the state of the law that allowed Woolterton to die, is "where euthanasia's enthusiasts - from Dignity in Dying to the manipulative Lord Falconer and the malleable DPP - have brought us."

Contact: Hilary White
Publish Date: October 6, 2009
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