Thursday 17 January 2008

report on transplants rings alarm bells

A new report on organ donation says that a patient becomes a potential donor "when a decision has been taken – in the best interests of the patient – that further active treatment is no longer appropriate and should be withdrawn". That phrase from Organs for transplants – a report from the Organ Donation Taskforce may seem innocuous or even reasonable. However, the words which ring alarm bells are "treatment" and "best interests". In recent years, those words' legal meanings have been radically changed for the worse.

In 1992, the House of Lords dealt with the case of Mr Tony Bland, who had been severely brain-damaged in the Hillsborough football stadium disaster. Mr Bland was said to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), which is better described as a persistent non-responsive state. The judges let doctors stop giving him food and fluids by tube and thus allowed intentional killing by neglect for the first time.

The Lords had turned English law on its head by ruling that tube-feeding was medical treatment. Because this so-called treatment offered no hope of curing Mr Bland, it was futile and, on that basis, could be withdrawn. The Law Lords said that keeping someone alive who was severely handicapped was not necessarily in his best interests and, on that basis too, treatment (i.e. feeding) could be withdrawn. They also ruled that, if Tony Bland's feeding tube was withdrawn, the cause of his death would be deemed as his underlying disease, not the lack of sustenance. The tube was removed and Mr Bland died from dehydration (not PVS) after nine days.

Since then, the English courts have made a number of similar decisions. Worse, the 2005 Mental Capacity Act (MCA) enshrined the Bland judgment in statute law and extended it. The way that the government bulldozed the MCA through parliament is very like the way they're currently pushing through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, as I blogged yesterday.

The MCA defines treatment even more broadly than the judges in Bland. This means that other kinds of basic care (maybe even spoon-feeding) could be withheld from patients. The MCA also creates a test for establishing patients' best interests. This includes many woolly and subjective factors but it makes no reference to the patient’s life or health, which used to be the criteria in case law. A doctor can thus disregard life and health when considering a patient's best interests.

This situation applies to any mentally-incapacitated patient, not just to people with a living will or power of attorney. Patients with a wide range of disabilities can thus be denied necessary treatment or care under the MCA. These include patients who, like my late father, suffer a stroke which worsens their dementia, and Alzheimer's sufferers.

The MCA also gives third parties (such as people with lasting powers of attorney) dangerous powers to insist upon life or death decisions. It also enables government-approved "independent mental capacity advocates" and court-appointed deputies to influence such decisions.

While the law has been changing, so has medical practice in many UK hospitals. Our family discovered this during the last few weeks of my father’s life on which I wrote a diary at the time.

Organs for transplants – a report from the Organ Donation Taskforce was published yesterday by the Department of Heath (which covers England) with the Northern Ireland DHSSPS, the Scottish government, and the Welsh Assembly Government. It's targeted at national health service administrators. Ms Elisabeth Buggins, chair of the task force, writes: “The UK has one of the worst records for organ donation in western Europe. The Taskforce was, however, greatly encouraged by the evidence it considered from across the world and believes that a 50% increase in organ donation is possible and achievable in the UK within five years. We are convinced that this goal will only be realised if our recommendations are considered and acted on as a whole.” We at SPUC will be studying the report to identify any sanctity-of-life issues in its 66 pages of recommendations and rationale.