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BMJ. 2007 July 21; 335(7611): 119.
PMCID: PMC1925157

Judge will not intervene as dying woman denied life support

Clare Dyer, legal correspondent

A judge at the High Court in Belfast has refused to intervene to stop a hospital in Northern Ireland withdrawing life support for a terminally ill woman.

Mr Justice Gillen refused to allow the daughter of the 51 year old woman, who wants her kept alive, to go ahead with an application for judicial review of the hospital's decision to let her die.

The dying woman was admitted to a Western Health and Social Trust hospital in Belfast last month, with liver failure. Neither she nor the hospital may be named, by order of the judge

Her daughter has invoked the Human Rights Act, which imposes an obligation on the state to protect the right to life. But the judge said that there was no obligation under the act to provide treatment that would be futile, such as artificial life support to someone who is dying.

“The sad truth is that this woman is going to continue to deteriorate and that her death will occur,” the judge said.

He said that he recognised this was difficult for her relatives but “everything was being done to ensure her death was as dignified as possible.”

The House of Lords decided in 1993 in the case of the survivor of the Hillsborough football ground disaster Tony Bland, who was in a persistent vegetative state, that doctors were not obliged to keep someone alive if it produced no benefit.

Whether the Human Rights Act changed the law was a matter that went to the High Court in England within days of the act coming into force in October 2000.

Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, then president of the court's family division, ruled that the act did not stop doctors withdrawing tube feeding from two severely brain damaged women in the persistent vegetative state. She concluded that the ruling in the Bland case did not conflict with rights under the act.


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