Partner and sister ask High Court for permission to let “minimally aware” woman die

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 25 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4772
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

The family and the former partner of a woman in a “minimally aware” state are asking the High Court in London to rule that she should have artificial feeding withdrawn and be allowed to die.

Her older sister said the 51 year old woman, named only as M, would prefer death to being permanently dependent on others for her care.

The case is the first in which the court has been asked to allow artificial nutrition and hydration to be discontinued where the patient is deemed to be not quite in a persistent vegetative state. The official solicitor, representing the patient, opposes the application, arguing that she has some awareness.

M, a former hairdresser, was struck with viral encephalitis as she was about to go on holiday with her partner, S, in February 2003. The couple had been together since their early twenties.

S wept as he told the court: “It’s not about us at all. We can only speak up for her, nothing more. We are her voice. We have no ulterior motive. We just know who she was and her opinions.”

M’s older sister, known as B, also wept as she insisted that it was cruel to keep her alive. “I know in my heart of hearts that she would not want to live like that. She cannot enjoy a drink, a cup of tea or anything. She has got no pleasures in life. Just a daily routine of being taken out of bed, put in a chair and put back in bed. Shower, doubly incontinent. It is just awful. It’s not life. It’s existence. And I know she would not want that,” she told the court.

Staff at the care home where she lives say they have seen slight signs of awareness in M, such as appearing to react to people and moving her hand in time to music. But M and S argued that she would never return to being the person she once was.

After being in a coma for several weeks, M was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, but this was later changed to a minimally conscious state, just above a persistent vegetative state. Her life expectancy is estimated at about 10 years.

Caroline Harry Thomas, for the official solicitor, argued that it would be illegal to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from someone who was medically stable and in a minimally conscious state.

The case is continuing with evidence expected from care home staff and legal and medical experts.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4772

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