Polish Catholic patient at center of UK court battle dies

A heart monitor in an intensive care unit. Credit: sfam_photo via Shutterstock.

A Polish Catholic patient at the centre of a UK court battle died on Tuesday despite last-minute efforts by bishops and government officials to bring him to Poland for treatment. 

The Polish Press Agency reported that family members had confirmed that the middle-aged man, identified only as RS, died on 26 January, after a hospital withdrew assisted nutrition and hydration for a final time following a series of legal challenges.

RS, a Polish citizen with strong pro-life views who lived for years in the UK, was hospitalized on 6 November 2020, following a cardiac arrest during which his brain was deprived of oxygen for at least 45 minutes.

The University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust applied at the end of November to the Court of Protection in London for permission to cease life-support treatment, arguing that RS, who fell into a coma, had little prospect of progressing beyond a minimally conscious state.

A judge ruled on 15 December that life-support treatment “could be lawfully discontinued,” noting that the man’s wife and children supported the step. 

The move was opposed by other family members, including his mother, who lives in Poland. 

The family members raised their objects unsuccessfully at a Court of Appeal hearing on 23 December and applied twice without success to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. 

Christian Concern, a UK nonprofit organization that offered support to the family members through its Christian Legal Centre, said in a 26 January statement that RS had been deprived of fluids and nutrition since 13 January.

“Following a courageous legal and diplomatic battle fought by members of his family and the Polish government to have RS repatriated to Poland, RS lost his life just as Poland was seeking to enforce a judgment of its courts to have him airlifted to a Polish hospital for further treatment and care,” it said.

“Last night (25 January), the family’s lawyers urgently wrote to the hospital’s lawyers, insisting that nutrition and fluids be reinstated in view of the diplomatic status granted by Poland and the decision of a Polish court. The hospital refused to re-commence life-sustaining treatment in the morning, and reported RS’s death later during the day.”

The organization quoted the patient’s mother as saying: “I am devastated that the British authorities have decided to dehydrate my son to death.” 

“What the British authorities have done to my son is euthanasia by the back door. Depriving him of nutrition and hydration is functionally the same as giving him an injection to end his life, except that the entire process is longer, degrading and inhumane treatment.”

Christian Concern said that family members had recorded videos of RS during a hospital visit and asked Fr. Patrick Pullicino, a neurologist and Catholic priest, to interpret them. He concluded that the videos indicated “a clear emotional response to the presence of family members” and recommended further tests.

But at a hearing on 30 December, the hospital said that the patient’s condition had not changed and the judge rejected suggestions that RS should be moved to Poland. 

Government officials had sought to intervene amid a mounting outcry about the case in Poland. Proposals included giving RS a diplomatic passport, removing him from the jurisdiction of UK courts. 

There were also legal moves in Warsaw aimed at paving the way for RS to be brought to the country.  

The case also raised alarm among Catholic bioethicists and bishops. 

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford issued a press release and briefing paper on 12 January raising concerns about the moral reasoning of the judges in the case.

David Albert Jones, the centre’s director, said that the judgment set “a very worrying precedent.”

“The grave danger of this judgment is that committed Catholics and those who hold a similar view about the human significance of food and drink may be starved and dehydrated to death against their will,” he wrote.

Two days later, Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth, the patient’s local bishop, also described the ruling as “very worrying.”

“My prayers are with the patient, his wife and family, and for all those involved in his care. The decision of the court to allow for the withdrawal of hydration and nutrition is very worrying. That it is deemed to be in the best interests of the patient more so,” he said in a 14 January statement

“Providing food and water to very sick patients — even if by artificial means — is a basic level of care. This is care that we must strive to give whenever possible.”

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, wrote to his English counterpart Cardinal Vincent Nichols on 19 January, asking him “to undertake steps towards saving the life of our compatriot.”

In his letter, Gądecki said that public opinion in Poland had been “shaken” by the case.

“In fact, he was sentenced to death by starvation,” the archbishop said.

English Catholic bishops raised the Polish Church leader’s concerns with Britain’s Health Secretary the following day.

“The Catholic Church continues to oppose the definition of assisted nutrition and hydration as medical treatment which has now become the basis of medical and legal decisions to withdraw assisted nutrition and hydration from patients,” wrote the bishops in their 20 January letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

“Providing food and water to very sick patients, even by assisted means, is a basic level of care. This care must be given whenever possible unless it is medically indicated as being overly burdensome or failing to attain its purpose.” 

The letter was signed by Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster with responsibility for life issues at the English and Welsh bishops’ conference, and Bishop O’Toole.

The bishops told Hancock: “The recent court cases concerning patient Mr RS in the care of the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust has shown the level of controversy around this definition as judges have been called to make decisions in the ‘best interests’ of the patient.” 

“We note that Mr RS had not refused food and fluids nor had he expressed any view about not wanting food and fluids in these circumstances and that there was no evidence that he viewed assisted nutrition and hydration as medical treatment.” 

The bishops noted that Gądecki had appealed to Nichols to intervene in the case.

“On his behalf, we write to express our opposition to this definition of medical treatment and to convey the offer of the Polish authorities to assist in the transfer of Mr RS to Poland for his future care,” Sherrington and O’Toole wrote.

“We accept the legal process concerning Mr RS has been completed. However, we pray for agreement within the family about the treatment and care to be provided and express the desire of the archbishop that Mr RS be transferred and cared for in Poland.”

Writing on his Twitter account yesterday, Archbishop Gądecki lamented the death of RS.

“I express my deep sorrow over the death of a Polish man in Plymouth. I pray for heaven for him and for comfort for his family. Let us boldly say ‘NO’ to the barbaric civilization of death,” he said.

Source: CNA