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A "Terrible Beauty", the Irish Supreme Court, and Dying

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image of European Journal of Health Law

The approval by Ireland's highest court, the Supreme Court, by a majority, of withdrawal of artificial tube-feeding and hydration from a woman who had been in a near-persistent vegetative state, but with minimal cognitive capacity, for over 23 years, on the basis that to do so was in her best interests and in accord with her constitutional rights to life, bodily integrity, privacy, and self-determination, marks a watershed in a country traditionally dominated by Roman Catholic doctrine, including the sanctity of life, and the authority of a (vitalist) medical profession. Although the decision might be regarded as compassionate, it is problematic in several respects. It dangerously extends the boundaries of withdrawal of artificial treatment from those with severe brain damage; uses inappropriate legal reasoning in the form of "best interests" of the individual; fails to examine sufficiently the criminal law implications of such action; and confuses and avoids several significant issues. In these respects, the decision represents, in the words of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, the birth of a "terrible beauty".

Affiliations: 1: Downpatrick, Northern Ireland


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