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Australia court allows quadriplegic patient to refuse feeding tube in 'right to die' case

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Western Australia [official website] on Friday ruled [judgment, PDF] that the right to refuse medical treatment includes the informed refusal of nutrition and hydration services, in a landmark decision. Christian Rossiter, a quadriplegic, had repeatedly asked [ABC report] his caregivers, Brightwater Care Group [corporate website], to discontinue providing nutrition and water through a gastric feeding tube so that he would starve to death. Brightwater feared that discontinuing treatment would be a breach of their duty to care for Rossiter, and would expose them to criminal liability regardless of his instructions. Under existing Australian law, patients had a right to refuse lifesaving medical treatment, but helping someone to commit suicide could result in criminal penalties. Emphasizing that the case was "not about euthanasia," "the right to life or even the right to death," Chief Justice Wayne Martin said that statutory and common law supported allowing a mentally competent patient to refuse treatment after being informed of the consequences.

[It] seems to me to be absolutely clear that, after he has been provided with full information with respect to the consequences of any decision he might make, Mr. Rossiter has the right to determine and direct the extent of the continuing treatment he receives, in the sense that treatment cannot and should not be administered against his wishes. If, after the provision of full advice, he repeats his direction to Brightwater that they discontinue the provision of nutrition and hydration to him, Brightwater is under a legal obligation to comply with that direction.

Phillip Nitschke, director of voluntary euthanasia advocacy group Exit International [advocacy website], with which Rossiter is affiliated, called the decision [press release] a "victory for common sense."

The right to die has been a highly contentious issue around the world. Last month, the UK Law Lords [official website] asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify [JURIST report] the UK's laws regarding those who aid patients seeking assisted suicide. Many Britons have reportedly gone to the Dignitas clinic [website, in German] in Switzerland to obtain assisted suicides. The House of Lords in July rejected a bill that would would have barred prosecuting those who go abroad to help others commit assisted suicide. Last year, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown [official website] spoke out against laws allowing assisted suicide [BBC report], saying that he would not create laws that "put pressure on people to end their lives." Also last year, Luxembourg came close to passing a bill [JURIST report] to legalize assisted suicide but the measure was not approved by monarch Grand Duke Henri. Henri's veto prompted the Luxembourg Chamber of Deputies to amend the constitution [JURIST report] to eliminate the requirement that the Grand Duke approve of all legislation. In 2006, the House of Lords set aside a bill to legalize assisted suicide following opposition by physician groups [JURIST reports]. Euthanasia was legalized in the Netherlands [BBC report] in 2001, and Belgium followed suit [JURIST report] in 2002.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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