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Respecting the right to die…revisited

2 Oct, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

With the recording of a narrative verdict following the inquest, the death of Kerrie Woolterton is once again making headlines. I wrote about this case of a young woman presenting with self-poisoning and refusing treatment one year ago, in a blog which attracted some thoughtful comment. The coroner stated: “She had capacity to consent to treatment which, it is more likely than not, would have prevented her death. She refused such treatment in full knowledge of the consequences and died as a result.” Sheila McLean, a Professor of Law and Medical Ethics, concurs with this view and clarifies the law in a commentary for the BMJ. She is correct, of course, in highlighting that if Ms Woolterton was thought to have capacity to make a decision about her treatment at the time of assessment the presence of an advance directive was indeed irrelevant.

Yet I still find the outcome of this case troubling. We are relying on details of events reported by the media, but given the context of this woman’s suicide would the presumption that she had capacity to decline treatment be so straightforward? Professor McLean makes the point that the presence of mental illness or indeed personality disorder is not in itself evidence of a lack of capacity. I would agree, but that does not mean they have no potential to influence or impair decision-making. Ms Woolterton had repeatedly presented after self-poisoning and would have known that treatment would be offered. That she still chose to call an ambulance to take her to hospital, albeit that she stated she was only seeking comfort and company, suggests to me a degree of ambivalence.

Key to the concept of capacity is the determination that a person understands the information relevant to a decision, and can use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision. As a legal concept that’s pretty clear but in a clinical setting where so many factors can be at play that determination can become murky. And of course, people often do not say what they mean or mean what they say.

In the last year I have discussed this case with a range of clinicians, and although the majority state that given this scenario they would have questions about the patient’s capacity and opt to treat them in their best interests, opinions are mixed. So the outcome (life or death) may have as much to do with our variable views as any objective measure of capacity which makes me uneasy. Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said the Mental Capacity Act had clarified the law for doctors. Maybe so, but it hasn’t made challenging dilemmas such as this any easier to resolve.

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