Campaigners have branded the proposals 'euthanasia by stealth'
Doctors will be able to end the lives of patients with severe degenerative diseases or advanced dementia if new proposals from their leaders are accepted.
The British Medical Association has proposed new guidelines recommending that GPs be allowed to withdraw tubes supplying food and water to those who cannot feed themselves – even in cases where said patients could otherwise live for years.
The proposals were put forward in response to legal test cases in which judges ruled that qualified NHS staff and officials no longer required a court’s permission to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from those patients who are incapacitated and unable to communicate or feed themselves.
The Supreme Court justices’ decision last month supported the right of doctors to withdraw life-sustaining nutritional supplies on their own authority, provided they had the explicit permission of the patient’s family or, where no family existed, medical proxy.
The withdrawing of treatment in such circumstances would lead to the patient’s death, a decision which has been labelled as “Euthanasia by stealth.”
According to the draft proposals currently being circulated by the BMA, doctors should be granted the authority to end the lives not only of those patients who are near death or in vegetative or minimally conscious states but also “the much larger group of patients who have multiple co-morbidities, frailty or degenerative neurological conditions.”
These new guidelines would cover “those patients who have a recognised degenerative condition – such as advanced dementia, Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease – that is likely to result in the patient being unable to take sufficient nutrition orally,” as well as potentially stroke patients and those with “rapidly progressing brain injury.”
They add: “Due to the degenerative nature of their condition, these patients are on an expected downward trajectory and will inevitably die, usually as a result of their underlying condition, although perhaps not imminently and could, potentially, go on living for many years.”
Currently, roughly 850,000 people are estimated to have dementia in Britain, with that figure expected to surpass 1,000,000 by 2025.
But the new proposals have attracted significant criticism from doctors and campaigners opposed to euthanasia and the deliberate termination of life by medical staff; among them, Dr Peter Saunders, of the group ‘Care not Killing’, who called it “a recipe for euthanasia by stealth, but all in the name of autonomy and best interests.”
“There are conceivably tens of thousands of patients in England and Wales who are vulnerable to the use and abuse of this guidance.
“It will be almost impossible to work out what has happened in a given case and there are no legal mechanisms in place for bringing abusers to justice.”
Professor Patrick Pullicino, of East Kent Hospitals University NHS Trust, the consultant who aided in exposing wrongful hospital deaths under the Liverpool Care Pathway, stated that the BMA plan was “terrible,” adding, “It facilitates the extension of end-of-life pathways to people with neurological diseases who are not dying, which is a very negative thing because there are a lot of disabled neurological patients.”