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British Health Service Doctors Accused of Involuntary Euthanasia
Allegations that elderly patients and patients with disabilities are being killed by involuntary euthanasia have caused a firestorm of controversy in Great Britain, as families across the nation come forward with stories of how their loved ones were given fatal doses of painkillers or "do not resuscitate" (DNR) orders without their agreement.
The National Health Service (NHS), a health system run by the national government, provides medical care in Britain. According to families, doctors, and patient advocate groups, tight funding and high demand often lead doctors and hospitals to ration treatment of patients whose "quality of life" is deemed too low, the Daily Telegraph reported.
"There are severe pressures on beds and in order to relieve this there may be a tendency to limit care inappropriately where you feel doubtful about the outcome," Dr. Adrian Treloar told the Telegraph. "Are the elderly being served properly? No, they are not getting what they deserve and I think they are being sold short. If old people start to resist early discharge they are seen as an encumbrance."
Other doctors have seen this firsthand.
"I have witnessed doctors who want to keep beds clear by withdrawing treatment or actively assisted in death to the point where it becomes involuntary euthanasia," Dr. Rita Pal told the London Times. She told of one case where a doctor ordered medications withdrawn from an 89-year-old stroke patient, who was conscious but unable to speak.
"This man was actually conscious and could hear us," Dr. Pal said. "The doctor said, 'We need the bedstop all his medication.' They stopped the medication and at about 9:30 p.m. he started getting short of breath. I held his hand and said, 'You will be all right.' I was sickened by the whole episode." The Times reported that Dr. Pal disobeyed orders and gave the patient medication to help him breathe, but the man died.
Members of 78-year-old William Heaford's family told their story to the Telegraph. Heaford entered the Royal Oldham Hospital after falling and cutting his head. He had to wait with a bleeding head more than four hours to be examined.
Once he was admitted to the hospital, he quickly began to lose weight. His family told the Telegraph that "when nursing staff brought his food they left it out of reach and did not help him to cut it up or eat it."
When they complained about this and other evidence of neglect, hospital staff told them, "Your father is not the first priority on this ward, there are other patients that come before him you know,"
theTelegraph reported. Heaford died on February 16, 1999, five weeks after admission to the hospital.
Even British supporters of assisted suicide admitted that these abuses are occurring. Michael Irwin, chair of Doctors for Assisted Dying, examined the records of 86-year-old Olwen Gibbings, who died in 1996 of septicemia.
According to the Telegraph, her medical notes included a DNR order and showed that she received infusions of diamorphine, a heroin-based painkiller, which neither she nor her family authorized.
"Having carefully reviewed all the documentation you have sent me," Irwin told Gibbings's daughter, Olwyn Bowen, according to the Telegraph, "I believe that involuntary euthanasia was performed on Mrs. Gibbings.
"In the U.K. there is every indication that both involuntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasiadeath brought about on an individual who has no capacity to understand what is really involved . . . happen much more frequently."
Once families of elderly patients who received questionable care came forward, relatives of patients with disabilities also began to speak out. Carol Glass, whose 12-year-old son David has cerebral palsy, told the Telegraph that doctors at St. Mary's Hospital in Portsmouth ordered that David should be given diamorphine and a DNR order and left to "die with dignity" when he was admitted with a chest infection.
Mrs. Glass did not know about this decision until she insisted on seeing her son's medical notes, according to the Telegraph. David survived his hospital stay, and his mother now cares for him at home.
Unfortunately, not all parents are successful in reversing doctors' decisions to let a patient with a disability die. A family who asked not to be identified told the Mirror that their 18-month-old daughter died in a hospital after doctors refused to help her breathe with a ventilator or give her antibiotics.
"Her parents tried to reverse this decision in the courts," a spokeswoman for Mencap, a mental health charity, told the Mirror, "but the judge said that, because she could not raise her head off the pillow, her life was not worth saving."
Concerned Britons formed a group called SOS-NHS Patients in Danger to monitor and try to stop these abuses. Spokeswoman Julia Quenzler told the Telegraph that her group is planning to sue the government for failing to protect vulnerable citizens.
"We are hearing from more families whose children were denied treatment for no other reason than that they were disabled, and strangers decided they had no quality of life," she said. "They had no chance."
Member of Parliament Ann Winterton introduced a bill in late 1999 intended to "halt the slide towards the acceptance and practice of euthanasia by making it clear to doctors that they cannot intentionally bring about the death of their patients by action or omission," the Telegraph reported. The House of Commons debated the bill on April 14, but those opposing the bill became very vocal and the allotted time for debate ran out. It was then placed in a long line of bills waiting for future debate, meaning it has "almost no chance of becoming law," according to the BBC.
"The terrifying cases coming out of Great Britain should serve as a warning to us in the United States both of the dangers of rationing, and of legalizing direct killing as euthanasia," said Burke Balch, NRLC director of medical ethics. "Rationing imposed by managed care organizations or by some Medicare restructuring proposals could easily make such discriminatory denials of lifesaving treatment, and even food and fluids denials that are already occurring here as common in America as in the U.K."