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Living will suicide aided by legal loophole

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“I would have been breaking the law. I wasn’t worried about her suing me, but I think she would have asked ‘what do I have to do to tell you what my wishes are?’” – Consultant Renal Physician, Dr Alexander Heaton.

In the first suicide note of its kind, a troubled young woman handed Norwich doctors her living will, ordering them not to interfere or risk legal punishment.

The premature death of 26-year-old Kerrie Wooltorton brought comment from all aspects of UK and international society. An inquest ruled that doctors had obeyed the law and had no choice but to make Ms Wooltorton comfortable as she slipped away.

“These situations are extremely difficult for doctors. The Mental Capacity Act has clarified matters because 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,” said Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of Ethics and Science at the British Medical Association.

Living wills, or advanced decisions, were introduced under the Mental Capacity Act in 2005.
They allow persons, in advance of mental incompetence, to make informed decisions regarding the level of healthcare applied in the event of medical problems.

Ms Wooltorton’s case was the first recorded instance of a living will being used to assist suicide. After being diagnosed with a rare medical condition that halted her ability to conceive, Ms Wooltorton began to self harm amidst a deteriorating mental health.

On September 15th she sought legal advice and a living will was written up instructing clinicians of her refusal of medical support. Three days later she drank a dangerous level of antifreeze and phoned for an ambulance. Her one request was that doctors make her comfortable.

This was the ninth time Ms Wooltorton had been administered for poisoning this year, but the first in which she had legal protection.

While the law was being considered in 2005, Catholic leaders raised their concerns over the use of living wills as suicidal helpers. Assurances were offered that suicidal individuals would have their living wills disregarded, a point that has become lost in the furore following Ms Wooltorton’s death.

“If the person is clearly suicidal, this may raise questions about their capacity to make an advance decision at the time they made it,” reads the code of practice attached to the 2005 Act.

“We think that it is very tragic indeed and we made a warning before the legislation went through that this exact thing would happen,” argued ProLife Alliance Chairman, Dominica Roberts.

Subsequent campaigns for more clarification of the law have seen further damnations from the Church over the Act’s apparent grey areas.

“We urged the government to make clear on the face of the bill that advance refusals of medical treatment, that were manifestly suicidal, should have no legal force,” offered a spokesman for the Bishop’s Conference.

Coupled with the recent guidelines on assisted suicide, introduced in late September, the tragic death of Ms Wooltorton and subsequent fallout will add fuel to the issue’s already intense flames.

While her actions cannot be condoned or supported, the process of taking out a living will can prove comforting for those contemplating their future with terminal illness.

A living will allows a patient full disclosure over what treatment they would and wouldn’t be happy to have, and a direct contact to be consulted over treatment when a medical situation arrives. They can prevent legal battles and promote honest conversations between family members over the concept and arrangements of death.

Living wills should be regularly updated, as attitudes towards death can no doubt change with age, and they can always be cancelled as long as the individual concerned is still of a sound mind.

Your local solicitor can always be approached on such a sensitive subject, opening an understanding door to the difficulties faced by families through troubling times.

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Written by Andrew Hodges

November 27, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Posted in Comment, LinkedIn

Tagged with , ,

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