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British Man Wins Protection from Starvation Death

In a ground-breaking case, a British man with a degenerative brain condition won the right to order doctors to continue medical treatment even if he becomes incompetent. A High Court judge ruled July 30 that Leslie Burke, 44, will be able to leave instructions that will prevent his death from starvation and dehydration.

"I am quite happy at the moment as you can imagine," Burke told BBC News. "The onus should be on helping people to live, not despatching people too early. The patient should have the last say."

Burke's condition, cerebellar ataxia, is expected to eventually degenerate to the point where he would need to be artificially fed and would be unable to communicate, according to the London Times. Fearing that current General Medical Council (GMC) guidelines would allow doctors to withdraw medical treatment when this occurs, Burke wanted to ensure that doctors would need to respect his wish to be fed, "even if it's only a matter of an extra couple of days, or a couple of weeks," he told BBC News.

The High Court ruling examined GMC guidelines on withholding and withdrawing treatment closely. The justices found that several provisions were unlawful and need to be revised.

Mr. Justice Mundy wrote that doctors who do not want to carry out the wishes of a patient must continue to provide treatment until a willing doctor can be found, according to Press Association (PA) News. Mundy also made it clear that the guidelines must require that doctors get a judicial sanction when they want to withdraw food and fluids.

In addition, Mundy wrote that "the guidance fails sufficiently to acknowledge the heavy presumption in favor of life-prolonging treatment and that the touchstone of best interests is intolerability," PA News reported.

Disability-rights groups praised the court ruling. "Many people have been afraid that their own wishes to carry on having treatment could be overruled," Liz Sayce of the Disability Rights Commission told BBC News. "If someone is not disabled themselves, they can assume that a patient's quality of life looks really terrible, and it could be better to let them go. But the person might not think that at all.

"This ruling puts the power back where it belongs - - with the person with the condition."

Sharon Burton, GMC senior policy adviser, told The Independent that the GMC is considering an appeal. She told the newspaper that "the case raised important points of principle and there were areas where clarification was needed."

British Nurses' Group Considers Supporting Euthanasia

The largest nursing group in Britain may drop its position opposing euthanasia and publicly support laws allowing health care workers to "help" people commit suicide. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced in late July that it is canvassing its members to determine if they support a change in policy.

"We have had some very measured and thoughtful comments and that is what we will be building our evidence on," Maura Buchanan, RCN deputy president, told the Sunday Herald. "At this stage we must maintain the legal position, but if we are looking at whether the law needs to be looked at again, we must listen very carefully to our members."

Recent events in Britain have intensified the debate over assisted suicide. Many Britons have traveled to Switzerland for quick, legal assisted suicides, while court cases have upheld British laws against euthanasia. Now, however, a bill "allowing an adult suffering unbearably from a terminal illness to receive assisted suicide from a doctor" is moving through the House of Lords, according to Press Association News.

Many, including the Catholic Church and disability-rights groups, have spoken out against any changes in the law banning assisted suicide. It would be "wrong for justice to say in certain circumstances people can die," Rachel Hurst, director of Disability Awareness in Action, told the Herald. "It would be a slippery slope and many people who did not want to die could be affected."

The RCN expects to give evidence to the committee studying the proposed law this fall, according to the Herald, and will decide by that time whether to change its position.

Idaho Parental Consent Law Under Attack

An Idaho law requiring minors to receive parental consent before having an abortion will remain in effect while the state appeals a decision declaring the law unconstitutional. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 16 that the law's provisions for emergency abortions without consent are inadequate.

The 2000 law was upheld in December 2001 by U.S. Magistrate Mikel Williams, who modified some portions but left the basic provisions intact, according to the Associated Press (AP). Minors in Idaho need the consent of one parent before an abortion, unless the girl obtains permission from a judge or in cases of medical emergency.

The appeals court panel found fault in the medical emergency provision, which it characterized as limited to only "sudden and expected" physical complications. Judge Marsha Berzon, writing for the panel, wrote that this definition of an emergency is too narrow, the AP reported.

"Once a medical condition exists, the constitutional inevitability of an abortion defeats the state's interests in potential life, making it extremely likely that any regulation that affects the procedure, even if the procedure can eventually go forward is unduly burdensome in light of the state's limited interests," Berzon wrote, according to the AP.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced July 23 that he would file an appeal to the entire 11-member panel of the appeals court.

Dutch Government Imposes Restrictions on Abortion Ship

The Netherlands government granted a license for the abortion ship Langernort to perform chemically-induced abortions, but for the first time aimposed restrictions that may keep the ship out of international waters.

A June 4 court ruling ordered the government to issue a permit to Women on Waves, the group that sponsors the ship, to distribute abortifacient pills for abortions up to 12 weeks, according to the Associated Press (AP). The group had been operating without a permit, but wanted the legal authorization to perform abortions later in pregnancy.

Since the Netherlands allows no restrictions on abortions up to six weeks, and Dutch law governs the ship in international waters, the group can continue to sail to countries where abortion is illegal, transport women onto the ship, and abort their very young babies in violation of their home country's law.

However, the Dutch Health Ministry, citing greater risk as a pregnancy progresses, ordered the ship to remain within 16 miles of an Amsterdam hospital if the unborn babies are between 6-1/2 and 12 weeks old, the AP reported.

"The state secretary has basically said we cannot work abroad anymore and this of course defeats the object of our campaign," Women on Waves founder Rebecca Gomperts told Reuters.

The Langernort sailed to Ireland in 2001 and Poland in 2003, where it was met by vigorous protests from the people in these pro-life countries. However, officials were unable to prevent abortions from occurring since the ship stayed in international waters.

Gomperts told Reuters that her group would appeal the Health Ministry's order.

China Tries to Reverse Shortage of Girls

Chinese officials offered new incentives in July in an attempt to reverse the growing disparity between boys and girls. If current trends continue, there may be a shortage of more than 30 million women by 2020, according to The Guardian.

Chinese parents, limited by the repressive one-child policy, often resort to sex-selection abortion or even infanticide to ensure they have a boy child, who is expected to care for them in old age. Although the one-child policy is sometimes relaxed in rural areas when the first child is a girl, parents may take lethal action if the second child is also female.

To reverse the trend, rural parents who have two daughters and no sons will receive an annual payment of 600 renminbi (about $72) after age 60, The Guardian reported. This payment will also be granted if the family has one girl and agrees not to have a second child hoping for a boy. Many rural Chinese earn less than $1 a day during their working years.

Local governments have also offered incentives, such as a housing grant of almost $2,000 for two-daughter families, according to The Guardian.

In addition, China has passed laws prohibiting doctors from telling women their baby's gender when it is determined by ultrasound.

"Illegal sex determination and sex-selective abortion must be strictly banned," said Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, according to the Associated Press (AP). "China has set the goal of lowering the sex ratio to a normal level by 2010."

However, there was no indication that the Chinese government would relax its brutal one-child policy, which has been in force since 1980.

European Court Rejects Unborn Child's Right to Life

Ruling that there is no right to life for unborn children in the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, rejected a mother's fight to convict the doctor who aborted her baby by mistake.

"This is not only a tragic individual case, where a loving mother has had her child killed at the hands of an incompetent surgeon, but it is a tragedy for mothers and unborn children throughout Europe," Nuala Scarisbrick, trustee of the British pro-life group LIFE, said in a statement. "[T]his ruling means that unborn children are legally still not recognised as fully human."

The case began when Thi-Nho Vo, 36, went to the Hotel-Dieu hospital in Lyons, France, for a routine prenatal checkup of her six-month-old unborn baby on November 21, 1991. On that same day, another woman with the same last name, Thanh Van Vo, was scheduled to have an intrauterine birth control device removed, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Dr. Francois Golfier mixed up the patients and began the surgical procedure to remove the device from the pregnant Thi-Nho Vo instead. Golfier punctured the amniotic sac, which led to an emergency abortion, the London Times reported.

Golfier was charged with unintentional homicide (the French equivalent of involuntary homicide) but was later acquitted in a French court. After an appeal, he was convicted of the charge and sentenced to six months in prison and a fine. France's highest court overturned the conviction in 1999, according to the AP.

Vo brought the case to the European court, asserting that the European Convention on Human Rights should apply to her baby. Article 2 of the convention directly states, "Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law."

However, the European court, on a 14-2 vote July 8, refused to apply this article to unborn children. Declaring that on a European level "there was no consensus on the nature and status of the embryo and/or fetus," the court ruled that the question of the humanity of the unborn "was a question to be decided on a national level E because the issue had not been decided within the majority of states" that form the European Union, according to the AP.

The ruling means that the French court's decision to overturn Golfier's conviction will stand.

Alaska Governor Signs Informed Consent Bill

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a bill July 26 requiring women seeking abortions to certify that they received information about the procedure and about fetal development, and that they were told the correct gestational age of their babies.

The state will develop a web site that will include photographs of unborn children at four-week increments, details about abortion methods, and information about potential complications and aftereffects of both abortion and childbirth, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Before an abortion, a woman would have to swear in writing that she received the information on the web site or from the abortionist.

The Senate passed the bill in May 2003 on a 12-8 vote. It was approved in the House by a 30-9 margin May 11, 2004.

"It's a way to ensure that a woman about to make a life-altering decision has access to all valuable information," Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg told the Daily News. "In our view, that's a very positive thing."

British Parents Left Out of Teens' Abortion Decisions

The British Department of Health confirmed in new guidelines July 30 that parents of girls under age 16 do not have to be informed that their daughters are seeking abortions.

Although the health department encouraged health care and social workers to make "every effort" to find another adult to provide support, a young teenager could make an abortion decision and go through the entire ordeal on her own if she so chooses, according to BBC News.

The decision comes with the case of 14-year-old Michelle Smith as a backdrop. Last May she was asked by a health worker at her school if she wanted to tell her parents that she was pregnant, but replied: "My mum would kill me." Michelle was referred to hospital and took one of two "chemical abortion" pills.

Within days her mother found out what was happening and Michelle changed her mind. But it was too late. Michelle said that if she had her chance again, "I would probably have kept the child and let my mum know," according to the News Telegraph.

Informed of the new guidelines, Mrs. Smith told the Daily Mail, "I am appalled that the Government thinks a child under 16 is mature enough to make a decision to have a termination alone."

Supporters of the guidelines, however, contend that keeping secret abortions legal is necessary to protect the rights of teenagers. "It is essential that competent young people's autonomy continues to be recognised and respected in this way, to ensure a good doctor-patient relationship, based on trust, within which young people feel they are able to seek advice," Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, told BBC News.

But others believe that young girls need their parents' guidance, especially if the pregnancy resulted from an abusive or coercive relationship. In addition, parents would know if the child has any medical or emotional conditions that would be compromised by abortion.

"In the vast majority of cases, the support that a teenage girl needs in these situations is the support of her parents," said Paul Tully of Britain's Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
COPYRIGHT 2004 National Right to Life Committee, Inc.
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Publication:National Right to Life News
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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