What do you do when an anorexic family member refuses to eat and is killing herself because of it? That question came under debate recently over a woman who hasn’t eaten solid food in over a year. One judge just ruled that she should be forcibly fed, but her friends believe she should be allowed to die. It’s a controversy that raises all kinds of ethical issues.
According to the Telegraph, a 32-year-old London woman has been in and out of eating disorder treatment centers since 2006, and since April she has been living in a community hospital. Known only as “E”, she has refused to eat any solid food in over a year–actions that are dangerously close to taking her life, but apparently she and her friends are OK with that. Last July, E signed a document stating that she does not want to be resuscitated or be given any medical intervention to prolong her life, and her friends are fighting for her right to die a “dignified death.”
E’s case was recently brought to the attention of local authorities because she was refusing to eat, and was taking only a small amount of water, according to the court documents.
Judge Peter Jackson declared on Friday that E should be forcibly fed because it’s “proportionate and necessary in order to protect her right to life.”
For E, the compulsion to prevent calories entering her system has become the card that trumps all others. The need not to gain weight overpowers all other thoughts.
E is a former medical student who reportedly suffers from a history of alcoholism, personality disorder and sexual abuse as a child. Her body weight is so dangerously low with a body mass index of just 11.3 (the normal BMI for a woman is between 18.5 and 24.9). A BMI of less than 12 indicates increased risk of sudden cardiac death.
In the U.K. and the U.S., it is legal to forcibly feed patients who are mentally ill or whose lives are in danger, but this case brings up all kinds of moral and ethical issues. On the one hand, you want to respect an adult’s wishes. E made it clear that she did not want extraordinary measures to save her life. But on the other hand, it would be extremely difficult as a friend or family member to stand by and not do something. When someone suffers from a mental condition, like an eating disorder, should we still take their wishes into account? I don’t think I could. Just eat something and we will help you get better, I’d want to say, knowing full-well that eating disorders are not that simple. And most of the time, they are not about the food at all.
But, regardless, the judge has made his decision and stands by it because he sees hope in her case:
On one side, I have been struck by the fact that the people who know E best do not favor further treatment. E is a special person, whose life is of value. She does not see it that way now, but she may in the future. I would not overrule her wishes if further treatment was futile, but it is not. Although extremely burdensome to E, there is a possibility that it will succeed.
So, what would you do if E was your friend or family member? Take our poll below or leave a comment:
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