Many families whose loved ones are in hospital on life support understandably cling to the hope that they will in time recover. As a High Court ruling showed, however, where such hopes run contrary to the weight of expert medical evidence, judges have the unenviable task of deciding where a patient's best interests lie.
The case concerned a young father-of-two who sustained catastrophic brain and spinal injuries when a car in which he was travelling hit a tree. He had since been tended to round-the-clock in a hospital intensive care unit where he was entirely dependent on artificial ventilation, nutrition and hydration.
Speaking with one voice, medical professionals involved in his care were convinced that he was in a persistent vegetative state and that prolonging his treatment would merely result in the continuation of a life of which he had no awareness. Their views prompted the relevant NHS trust to seek the Court's authorisation to cease his life-sustaining treatment.
Members of his family, however, took a different view. They had observed what they believed to be signs of awareness in the form of him opening his eyes and moving his head in response to requests. They felt strongly that he would have wanted his life to be sustained and that he should be given more time to recover. The Official Solicitor, who represented his interests in court, described it as a finely balanced case.
Ruling on the matter, the Court praised members of the family, who had conducted themselves with enormous dignity in a desperately sad case. There was a strong legal presumption in favour of life being sustained; his condition was in some respects relatively stable and his survival to date had defied medical predictions. There was no direct evidence that he was experiencing any pain.
His apparent responses to stimuli had understandably given his family hope. In the light of the unanimous medical evidence, however, the Court found that they were spontaneous and reflexive movements which were consistent with a persistent vegetative state and did not indicate any level of consciousness.
In granting the trust's application with profound regret, the Court found that, in the light of his lack of awareness and bleak medical prognosis, prolonging life-sustaining treatment would bring him no benefit. Withdrawal of such treatment was, therefore, in his best interests.