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British Court OKs Suicide for Paralyzed Woman
March 23, 2002 -- A British court has ruled that a paralyzed woman is mentally competent to "refuse consent to life sustaining medical treatment" and may have assistance in turning off her ventilator, committing suicide. In the landmark ruling, the judge wrote that "administration of ventilation by artificial means against the claimant's wishes since August 8, 2001, has been an unlawful trespass."

"There was hardly a person in the courtroom who did not hope that she would be allowed relief from her living death," wrote the London Times's Valerie Grove. Read Grove's story.

The woman, known only as "Miss B," was praised by the judge for her competence and the clear way in which she expressed her views. The woman had complained that she could not obtain the same level of supports that actor Christopher Reeve has used to maintain his quality of life, said the activist group Not Dead Yet, who condemned the ruling.

"We understand that people have the right to choose to refuse unwanted medical treatment," said NDY president Diane Coleman, "but that right is not the real issue in these cases, it's the lack of meaningful choices or options to live. The 'right to die' is a subterfuge for what is really a 'duty to die,' because society refuses to provide the supports needed to live comfortably outside a hospital or nursing home."

Miss B's living will, made several years ago, before her accident, must be respected, said the British court. She had worked as a hospital staff trainer before becoming disabled, according to news reports. Several similar cases were decided in the U.S. during the late 1980's, involving ventilator users, usually young men, who were forced to live in nursing homes due to the lack of public funding for home-based and community services. "We called them the 'give me liberty or give me death' cases," says Coleman, herself a woman who uses a breathing machine at night. "We argued that these individuals were not provided an opportunity for informed consent after considering all their options, including the option of using the money paid to the nursing home to, instead, live in their own apartment with assistants."

Not Dead yet says judges have been very superficial in looking at the reasons for suicide and do not "even think about non-discrimination in suicide intervention. These cases were routinely lost in court. In one, though, that of Larry McAfee, disability advocates were able to help him move out of a nursing home and he changed his mind about dying.

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