BOSTON -- A comatose patient may die a natural death with dignity, the state's highest court ruled Thursday in allowing the removal of a feeding tube that has sustained a father of five for three years.
The bitterly divided court recognized a person's right to 'avoid circumstances in which the individual himself would feel that efforts to sustain life demean or degrade his humanity.'
Former firefighter Paul E. Brophy Sr., 49, of Easton, comatose since he underwent surgery in April 1983 to repair a ruptured blood vessel, will temporarily continue to receive liquid nourishment through a tube surgically planted in his stomach.
Before the tube can be removed, family members who argued for his right to die a natural death must arrange to transfer him from New England Sinai Hospital, which successfully argued medical ethics prevented it from halting treatment.
'We wouldn't do it at this hospital and that was upheld by the court,' said hospital executive director Donald Goldberg. 'We don't have to because it's against our ethical principles.'
Courts in at least three states have upheld a patient's right to refuse artificial feeding. But this case is believed to be the where a court has upheld a right to refuse treatment while the patient was still alive.
There are an estimated 10,000 patients around the country in a similar condition -- an irreversible coma but able to breathe on their own and not terminally ill.
The state Supreme Judicial Court ruling overturned a decision last year by Norfolk Probate Court Judge David H. Kopelman, who had acknowledged Brophy had told his family he did not want to be kept alive by artificial means.
The 4-3 opinion was both praised and condemned. Proponents hailed the affirmation of the 'living will' concept, while foes claimed the ruling gives legal standing to euthanasia.
'The duty of the state to preserve life must encompass a recognition of an individual's right to avoid circumstances in which the individual himself would feel that efforts to sustain life demean or degrade his humanity,' Justice Paul Liacos wrote for the majority.
'It is antithetical to our scheme of ordained liberty and to our respect for the autonomy of the individual for the state to make decisons regarding the individual's quality of life,' Liacos wrote. 'Our role is limited to ensuring that a refusal of treatment does not violate legal norms.'
In a bitter dissent, Justice Francis Nolan said the majority opinion 'affronts logic, ethics and the dignity of the human person.'
'Despite the opinion's high-blown language to the contrary, the court today has endorsed euthanasia and suicide.... I can think of nothing more degrading to the human person than the balance which the court struck today in favor of death and against life.'