Australian care home allowed to starve man to death

An Australian court on Friday ruled that a quadriplegic man who has begged to be allowed to die has the right to order his carers to starve him to death.

Updated: Aug 14, 2009, 16:18 PM IST

Perth: An Australian court on Friday ruled that a quadriplegic man who has begged to be allowed to die has the right to order his carers to starve him to death.
In a landmark judgement, Western Australia`s chief judge Wayne Martin said the Brightwater Care Group would not be criminally responsible if it stopped feeding and hydrating severely paralysed Christian Rossiter, 49.

Martin said Rossiter had the right to direct his own treatment, and that food and water "should not be administered against his wishes".

"It`s not about euthanasia," said Martin.

"Nor is it about the right to life."

The ruling sets a legal precedent in Australia, where helping someone take their own life is a crime punishable by life in prison in some states.

"It`s comforting to know that when you say you`re going to starve yourself to death no-one`s going to come along in the night when you`ve lost consciousness and keep you alive to suffer a bit longer," said Rossiter.

The judge found Rossiter was not terminally ill or dying and had the mental capacity to make an informed decision about stopping his treatment.

Martin ordered that medical staff fully explain to Rossiter the consequences of ceasing nutrition and hydration through a tube into his stomach, and said carers "may not lawfully continue" nourishing him once that had occurred.

"I think he has now opened up the door for people who do want to die by starvation," said Rossiter`s lawyer John Hammond.

"It sets a precedent whereby people can easily refuse medical treatment."

In a statement read to the court Friday, the former stockbroker and outdoor adventurer said he was unable to undertake the most basic of human functions.

"I am unable to blow my nose," Rossiter said. "I am unable to wipe the tears from my eyes."

He made a public plea last week to be allowed to end his suffering, which he described as a "living hell".

"I`m Christian Rossiter and I`d like to die. I am a prisoner in my own body. I can`t move," he told reporters.

"I have no fear of death -- just pain. I only fear pain."

Brightwater, the group that runs the nursing home where Rossiter lives, sought the court ruling on whether ceasing to feed him would place it in breach of its duty of care, and said it held no position on his wish to die.

Palliative care experts said it would take between one and two weeks for Rossiter to die once nutrients were withdrawn, but he wouldn`t suffer.

"There is not a lot of pain involved, or a lot of distress involved," doctor Scott Blackwell said.

"He will ultimately sink into a coma and he will die."

Renowned euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke, called the decision "very important" and "such a victory for common sense."

"The idea that they would have come back with some direction that his wishes would not be complied with is just too awful to think about," Nitschke said.

Nitschke, head of euthanasia group Exit International, said Rossiter would be able to ask his carers to stop feeding him whenever he wanted and could also revoke it any time.

He also said Rossiter was considering ending his life in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.

Rossiter developed spastic quadriplegia after separate accidents in which he fell 30 metres (100 feet) from a building and was then hit by a car whilst riding his bicycle.

Australia sparked international controversy in 1995 when the Northern Territory`s provincial government legalised euthanasia.

Nitschke helped four people to die in the nine months before the national government intervened to overturn the law in 1996, earning the tabloid nickname "Doctor Death”.

Bureau Report