Friday, August 14, 2009

The Right to Choose.

I have been following the case of Christian Rossiter (an Australian man currently living in a Perth nursing home after an accident left him a quadriplegic and having to be fed through a tube into his stomach). He has been asking carers at the nursing home not to feed for months. He feels his life, with no prospect of improvement, is intolerable and wanted the right to have his request not to been tube fed respected. He is well aware of what that would mean. The nursing home has continued feeding him despite his having the right under the law to refuse medical treatment. Today the Western Australian Supreme Court granted him that right saying he was of sound mind and had the right to refuse nutrition and hydration.

This is such a sad case and I am glad Mr Rossiter can now make his own decisions about his medical treatment. Let us be clear about this. It is legal to refuse medical treatment. If I am of sound mind and refuse to take medication and further down the track I die as a consequence that is no-one's business but mine. It is not the business of a nursing home, a right to life group or anyone else.

I'm not at all sure how I would respond in a situation like this - who can without experiencing it - but if I did make that decision it would be considered and a deliberate choice and I would expect my wishes to be respected. After all I would not be asking for someone to give me a lethal injection, strangle me or cut my throat. I would, in fact be asking for nature to be left to take its course. If the only way I can take in food is by artificial means then I am interfering in the course of nature. I may well think that is desirable and want to hang on to my life and that is fine. I would be making a deliberate decision to avail myself of all the medical options. On the other hand I may think it was not desirable and, knowing the end result would be to die sooner, I may opt out of the treatment which is disrupting the natural course of things. If I made that choice and death was the result so be it. In medical matters just because we can do something doesn't mean it is desirable that we should and the patient's informed consent should be an absolute requirement to any treatment.

One of the things that has disturbed most about this situation is the number of people who see Mr Rossiter's rights as less important than their own beliefs. I'm not going to talk about this from either side of the religious debate. I don't care if you are a religious person or an atheist or anywhere in between. Right now I'm fairly unimpressed with them all. With due respect to all those who have sought to influence the outcome of this case however fervent your belief that you are right it is just that - your belief. I respect your right to hold a belief and to practise whatever faith that is but in return I expect you to permit others to hold whatever belief they have and live by its tenets as long as it doesn't harm others.

At least part of the problem with the issue is that the term of voluntary euthanasia implies giving someone the authority to kill another. We need another more appropriate and less emotive way to describe a situation like this. Mr Rossiter was seeking the right to die naturally. He did not ask someone to kill him. Any responsibility is his and no-one should have the right to deny him the choice.

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