Baroness Masham: The dying should be well looked after

Baroness Masham of Ilton wants a law passed to stop doctors from being able to withdraw water and food from patients, just because it is believed there is nothing more that can be done for them. Christian Today spoke to her more about the issue.

(Photo: Konstanty Paluchowski)

Baroness Masham of Ilton is on a mission to stop doctors deciding when it is acceptable to withdraw liquid from a dying patient.

The paralytic and practising Catholic last week announced her intention to bring forward a private member's bill that amends the 2005 mental health act to prevent doctors from being able to withdraw food and fluids from patients who have been medically declared 'dying'.

A 1993 Law Lords ruling classed food and essentially fluids as "treatment", laying the groundwork for this to be possible.

The 2005 act provided for patients to request a withdrawal of treatment if they entered a vegetative or otherwise non-communicative state, but it offered no provisions for an alternative arrangement, leaving the system open to abuse.

There have been reports of patients declared as 'dying' being denied something as simple as a glass of water.

Christian Today caught up with Baroness Masham to talk about her proposal. 

CT: Why do you think you need to put this bill forward from a Catholic perspective?

BM: I don't think it's particularly Catholic thing, I think it's a human right, to have food and fluids. It's inhuman to deny someone a drink if they wanted one.

CT: The fact that they may or may not be dying doesn't affect that?

BM: Not if they want it. We had a case of one young man in St George's Hospital in Tooting. He was desperate for a drink, and they wouldn't give him one. He'd had an operation and shortly after that he died.

But between those two events, he'd even rung the police on his mobile, he was that desperate, just for some water. I talked to one of the nursing staff at St George's and they just said "Yes, it's an awful case".

I can't understand why you would deny these things to people, when they want it. If they don't want it, that's different.

CT: Do you think doctors should be able to make judgements about the provision of fluids and food where patients are in a non-communicative state, such as a coma? Or should it be reserved to other people?

BM: I think doctors should be working with the next of kin. I mean, if the person themselves is able to communicate, they should be involved. Doctors shouldn't be able to just do things without the knowledge of other people.

CT: Does being disabled yourself affect your opinion on this matter?

BM: I don't think so. I think I would have had this opinion all along. If somebody's dying, my view is that you should try and make them as comfortable as possible.

CT: So your opinion on this matter isn't affected by either your religious persuasion or your disability?

BM: I think they help, because religion does give you a view on dying. But I do think I would have had this same view anyway, even if I hadn't been disabled. Just as a human right.

It's quite different if someone is unconscious, you've got to look after them as well as possible. Michael Schumacher has been looked after in his coma very well.

CT: What is your opinion on situations where people explicitly ask for their care, food and fluids to be withdrawn? Do you have any thoughts on those situations?

BM: If they do, then yes, that's fine, but I wonder how many people do? I don't know, and I've always heard it the other way round. People who didn't want to die having things taken from them.

If people want to turn their heads to the wall and die, that's their choice. But if they want something, like water, they should be given it.

If you're a patient in a hospital, you're very vulnerable and you need protection. People get thirsty, and it's a really terrible thing to be thirsty and want a drink.

There was a case recently of a child who wanted a drink and he was so thirsty he was sucking the moisture out of the cleansing wet wipes.

I just think people shouldn't be denied something if they want it. Especially when they are dying.

CT: And when do you expect this bill to go before the house?

BM: Oh, it will be a long while yet. There's hardly any time left for private members' bills at this stage. But it will get there eventually.

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