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Aussie quadriplegic empowered to starve to death

Aussie quadriplegic empowered to starve to death

Court asks nursing home to respect 49-year-old patient's decision to die.

Canberra: Christian Rossiter has proven his legal right to die and declared himself a champion of other quadriplegics who no longer find life worth living.

An Australian state Supreme Court ruled on Friday that a nursing home in the west coast city of Perth must respect the 49-year-old patient's decision to starve to death.

His case adds to international arguments among euthanasia advocates, religious groups, lawyers and ethicists about where the state's duty to preserve life ends.

"I'm happy that I won my right to die," the former stockbroker and mountaineer told reporters from his nursing home bed where he is fed by a tube.

Rossiter claimed an Australian legal precedent, saying now "similar quadriplegics can choose whether they want to live."

The case in Western Australia state sheds light on a grey area in Australian law: patients have a right to refuse lifesaving treatment but helping another to commit suicide is a crime punishable by life in prison.

The nursing home sought a court ruling on its legal culpability before agreeing to Rossiter's repeated requests to stop feeding him.

Comparable cases in other countries have generated heated national debate.

In the United States, comatose Terri Schiavo died in 2005 after her husband prevailed over her family in an eight-year court battle to remove her life supporting feeding tube.

Courts repeatedly blocked the efforts of her parents, Congress, Governor Jeb Bush and his older brother, President George W Bush, to resume her feedings.

Last week, Britain's top court ordered the government to draw up rules for when it will and won't prosecute assisted suicide.

Dozens of Britons have killed themselves in the past decade in clinics in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, but no one has been charged under British law with helping them travel there.

Rossiter told his one-day court hearing on Friday that he was prepared to fly to Switzerland to take a fatal drug cocktail, but that the Swiss government has been known to hold up cases like his with red tape.

An expert on Australian health law and ethics, Thomas Faunce, a professor at both the Australian National University's law and medical schools, told The Associated Press that Rossiter's case had been judged on its own merits and did not set a clear precedent.
"The judge made a determination that there was nothing that could be done to improve this person's quality of life either in terms of psychiatric treatment or mobility," he added.

Peter O'Meara, state president of the Right to Life Association, said he was considering launching a legal challenge to the ruling.

"We know that from our discussion with quadriplegics who are in a far worse situation than him — they were saying that if he got proper stimulus, he could change his mind," O'Meara said.

"If it does set a precedent, we would be very much concerned," he added.

In court, the judge said Rossiter, who broke his spine in 2004 in a road accident and was left a spastic quadriplegic after a fall last year, clearly had a right to direct--and refuse--his treatment.

Food and fluid "should not be administered against his wishes," but medical staff must fully inform Rossiter of the consequences, Martin said.

After the ruling, Rossiter said he would take further medical advice before refusing food and water.

"There's a possibility I could still be dissuaded," he told reporters.

Rossiter appeared in court Friday in a reclining wheelchair with a tracheotomy tube fitted in his throat to allow him to breathe. He was accompanied by a nurse.

He told the judge he was of sound mind and wanted to die.

Lawyer Linda Black also read a statement by Rossiter to the court.

"I am unable to undertake any basic human functions," his statement said. "I am unable to blow my nose. I'm unable to wipe the tears from my eyes."
first published:August 15, 2009, 19:20 IST