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Court ruling ‘puts lives of severely disabled at risk’

The Court of Protection and Central Family Court in central London (Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire)

Severely disabled people who are unable to communicate are at greater risk of being dehydrated to death because of a court judgment allowing artificial hydration to be withdrawn from a man in a “minimally conscious state”, anti-euthanasia groups have warned.

They are concerned that a ruling to end the life of PC Paul Briggs, a Gulf War veteran left severely brain damaged by a motorcycle accident, could set a precedent for legal killings of greater numbers of disabled people.

A joint statement from Alert, the anti-euthanasia pressure group, and Distant Voices, a disability rights group opposed to euthanasia, described the ruling by the Court of Protection in Manchester on Tuesday as “bad news”.

Elspeth Chowdharay-Best, the honorary treasurer of Alert, said: “PC Paul Briggs, whose only crime was to be disabled, has been condemned to a slow and painful death by being deprived of water.

“There is a danger that this case may set a precedent and lead to many more people becoming victims if they cannot adequately speak for themselves.”

The ruling was also criticised by the Medical Ethics Alliance, an umbrella group of secular and faith-based organisations dedicated to preserving Hippocratic medical principles.

Dr Tony Cole, the chairman, said: “Thirst is one of the most terrible of sensations and the thirst centre is situated deep in the brain in a region called the hypothalamus.

“There are no drugs that can assuage it and anyone who has seen death from dehydration is unlikely to forget it.

“Calling a feeding tube ‘life support’, and ordinary fluids ‘medical treatment’, is frankly misleading.

“An otherwise fit person with good renal function may survive more than a fortnight and would really be going through hell.”

PC Briggs, 43, suffered severe brain trauma and five fractures to his spine when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle in Birkenhead, the Wirral, while he was serving with Merseyside Police.

A father of a five-year-old daughter, he is now able to communicate sporadically and only by pushing a buzzer in response to a question.

Chelsea Rowe, 26, was jailed for a year in July for crashing into him as he rode to a night shift a year earlier.

PC Briggs’s wife, Lindsey, asked the Court of Protection to end her husband’s life “given his previously expressed wishes” and also the prospects of his quality of life even he was able to make a partial recovery.

Her application was vigorously opposed by staff at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool who argued that there was potential for Mr Briggs to emerge from his minimally conscious state.

Mr Justice Charles decided, however, that life-sustaining “treatment” could be ended and the patient be moved to a hospice to receive palliative care.

Commentators have noted that the case is the first in England and Wales to allow food and water to be withdrawn from a patient who is clinically stable.

Afterwards, Mrs Briggs said: “The court case was the hardest thing we have ever had to do but we did it for Paul, to honour his wishes.

“We are grateful that Mr Justice Charles has shown compassion towards Paul, has respected his wishes and values and has understood what Paul would have wanted.

“He has been able to place himself in Paul’s situation, and for that we will be for ever thankful.”

Vikram Sachdeva, the Official Solicitor barrister representing the interests of PC Briggs, has said he is considering taking the case to the Court of Appeal.

Mrs Briggs said she was “dismayed” to learn that the Official Solicitor might appeal against the ruling.

“We feel overwhelming despair and sorrow, but we know we have to try to somehow cope and continue for Paul,” she added.

“Given this continued uncertainty, Christmas will now not be a peaceful occasion for us.”