The tragic case of Kerrie Wooltorton
Doctors were right to allow a 26-year-old woman to die after swallowing antifreeze because she had made a living will, a British coroner has found.
Before her death in September 2007 Kerrie Wooltorton had swallowed antifreeze nine times. Each time, however, she had accepted dialysis treatment to flush the poison from her system. Finally she wrote a living will which instructed doctors to give her nothing except comfort care. Three days later she swallowed more antifreeze and when she arrived at hospital, she handed the letter to the doctors. It said that she was "100 per cent aware" of the consequences and did not want to be treated. She had only called an ambulance because she did not want to die alone and in pain and not because she wanted to be treated.
Doctors felt anguished, but believed that they were legally obliged to follow Ms Wooltorton’s wishes under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act. The coroner backed their decision: "A deliberate decision to die may appear repugnant, but any treatment to have saved Kerrie’s life in the absence of her consent would have been unlawful."
Professor Sheila McLean* commented in the BMJ that the living will is a distraction from the real issue of the case, which is the right of a competent patient to refuse treatment. Under British law, even the mentally ill may be deemed to be mentally competent.
The General Medical Council has also indicated that failure to comply would lead to deregistration.
Opponents of euthanasia were outraged. "What this miserable story also tells us is just how far the medical profession and the emergency services have been pushed into a culture where it’s now okay to let people commit suicide if they apparently want to," snarled George Pitcher, a columnist with the London Telegraph.
Was Ms Wooltorton capable of informed consent? She was clearly a very troubled young woman with a severe personality disorder. She lived alone and had been estranged from her parents for years. She was deeply depressed over rare gynaecological condition which made it impossible for her to have children. ~ London Telegraph, Sept 30;
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