Paul Brophy, age 49, of Concord, Mass., died on October 24 – eight days after his wife won a court order allowing her to move him to a hospital where doctors would follow her wishes to withdraw nourishment from her husband.
Mr. Brophy had received water and nutrition through a gastronomic tube for the past three and a half years, following unsuccessful surgery after a blood vessel burst in his brain. His doctor told the Boston Globe that Mr. Brophy received virtually no nutrition in the eight days following the court order, and only as much water as was necessary to administer medicine to prevent seizures. Mrs. Brophy allowed the empty “G-tube” to remain in place to help his breathing during this time. “Without it, he could have made all sorts of dreadful gurgling noises, and she didn’t want that,” the doctor said. The cause of death was listed as pneumonia.
Right to Life officials in the U.S. called the case an invitation to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. “The Brophy case is to euthanasia what the 1982 Infant Doe case was to infanticide,” said James Bopp Jr., president of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled.
David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee agreed. “The decision to starve Mr. Brophy to death is unconscionable,” he told the National Right to Life News. “He fit none of even the very loose criteria for withdrawal of food and water established by other pro-euthanasia cases: he was not old, or terminally ill, for example.”
“Mr. Brophy died because those around him were convinced his quality of life was insufficiently high to keep him alive. If ever there was a case which demonstrates legislation for the medically disabled, this is it.” Mr. O’Steen added, Mrs. Brophy’s legal battle began in February 1985, after officials at New England Sinai Hospital refused her request to remove the “G-tube” which had been sustaining Mr. Brophy’s life for about 18 months. Probate Court Judge David Kopelman agreed with the hospital, saying that society “is morally obligated to sustain life of an ill human being, even one in a persistent vegetative state…” Judge Kopelman detailed how a patient dying of starvation reacts:
“If food and water are withheld from Brophy pursuant to the guardian’s request, his prognosis will certainly be death from starvation, or more probably from dehydration, which would occur within a period of time ranging from a minimum of four days to a maximum of three weeks.” During this time, Brophy’s body would be likely to experience the following effects from a lack of hydration and nutrition:
- His mouth would dry out and become caked or coated with thick material
- His lips would become parched and cracked or fissured
- His tongue would become swollen and might crack
- His eyes would sink back into their orbits
- His cheeks would become hollow
- The mucosa (lining) of the nose might crack and cause his nose to bleed
- His skin would hang loose from his body and become dry and scaly
- His urine would become highly concentrated, causing inflammation of the bladder
- He would develop hyperthermia, very high body temperature
- The lining of his stomach would dry out, causing dry heaves and vomiting
- His brain cells would begin drying out, causing convulsions
- His respiratory tract would dry out, giving rise to very thick secretions, which could plug his lungs and cause death
- Eventually his major organs would fail, including his lungs, heart and brain.
“The above described process is extremely painful and uncomfortable for a human being. Brophy’s physician was unable to (imagine) a more cruel and violent death than thirsting to death.”
Mrs. Brophy, however appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. This court ruled in her favour. The judges said that Sinai Hospital had the right to refuse to carry out Mrs. Brophy’s wishes but she had the right to move her husband to a hospital that would comply. Paul Brophy died eight days after he was moved to Emerson Hospital.
In Canada, euthanasia is illegal under Section 199 of the Criminal Code. It is, however, more widespread than generally realized, according to University of Calgary law professor John Christopher Levy. At a recent panel discussion (reported in Western Report, November 10), Professor Levy cited the case of a Calgary doctor who gave his terminally-ill cancer patient a therapeutic dose of morphine. The injection eased the patient’s pain – and also killed him. The patient’s chart noted the injection, and stated “administered for the relief of pain with full knowledge of the side effects.”