Medical practitioners often find themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to withdraw or discontinue treatment that is artificially prolonging a patient’s life. This can sometimes raise ethical and legal issues for the doctor concerned. How can doctors be sure that their decision is on the right side of the law? What should they do if a family member disagrees with their decision? This arose recently in the much-publicised case of French national, Vincent Lambert.
In 2008, Vincent Lambert, a 32-year old nurse, was left in a vegetative state after sustaining serious head injuries in a motor-cycle accident. Doctors used artificial nutrition and hydration, administered through a gastric tube, to keep him alive. By 2012, however, he was becoming increasingly resistant to being fed. In 2014, his doctor decided to remove the gastric tube as its only effect was to sustain Mr Lambert’s life artificially. Mr Lambert’s parents and two of his siblings argued that this would be in breach of the right to life guaranteed by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 2 of the Convention imposes a positive obligation on States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction.