Judge Rules Anorexic Woman Should Be Force-Fed: Right Or Wrong?

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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Photo: whathehealthmag.wordpress.com


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    • Kelly Runs on Cake

      I don’t think she should be force-fed. Anorexia is a disease, but anyone with any disease has the right to refuse treatment.

      • HannahBeth

        Kelly- It is a disease, but I don’t think you’re correct that anyone with a disease has the right to refuse treatment, when it comes to mental disease. If someone’s deemed mentally unstable or incompetent to make legal / health-related decisions, they won’t.

        I kind of think this is just a horrible relapse waiting to happen- being FORCED to eat. But she’s not going to save herself, so someone else has to, it seems.

    • Megan

      I agree with the judge, but I also think that she needs to get some serious psychiatric help as well.

    • blahhhh

      One name: Terri Schiavo.

    • Emily

      America the Beautiful – where Terri Schaivo was literally starved to death and E is now being force-fed. Besides the total reversal in attitude towards, you know, the sanctity of human life, there is also a lot of irony in the fact that in both instances, the personal desires of the person in question have been ignored! Their right to make an extremely personal decision like that…nobody else should have the power to take it from them! Is it just me, or is our legal system messing up and in way over its head?

      I understand that ethically speaking, people have some degree of responsibility to investigate situations like these. But our society is really fixated on intervention, and I think that can take away from what quality of life remains. This is an incredibly gray area of morals, politics, and the vast array of differing opinions that arise. I had a very visceral, intuitive reaction to this news, and I know others did as well. I tend to think that the opinion that should ultimately count belongs to the person whose life we are so eagerly taking responsibility for.

      However, I also am aware I don’t know all the details…I can only hope that this is not another tragedy in the making, another violation of a person’s right to live or die. If it turns out this judge made the right call and E’s life gets better, that would be like a miracle – but I still hope he knows what a thin line he’s walking on.

      To be fair – it’s easy to talk about a stranger’s rights. I’m more comfortable contemplating a total stranger’s suicide than I ever would be if E was my sister or friend. I’d do anything for a family member of mine. I would fight for second and third chances to make my brother’s life a better one, no matter what he said. You can gain perspective by being dispassionate, but at the same time, you can have a vision of how to help a seemingly desperate person, if you know and love them. If E is surrounded by people who truly care about her and know how to help, maybe she can pull through this despite how she feels now.

      • Emily

        Correction…minor confusion on location. England, not America. I’m more disturbed than I thought. Still, the example of Terri Schaivo is relevant in how it represents a current social issue, as is the focus and sometimes over-emphasis on intervention.

      • JoAnna

        This case is not the same as the Terri Schiavo case…. Terri was in a vegetative state, the feeding tube was her life support. She had no quality of life. Her was permanent. A feeding tube is part of a life sustaining measure just like an intubation tube, it’s used to keep an otherwise terminal patient alive. In the case of E, anorexia is a treatable mental illness, it is not terminal. This girl is not competent to make reasonable healthcare decisions. If she was suffering a terminal illness and had a living will that she had drawn up while she was still in sound mind than I would 100% support her decision for no feeding tube.

    • Hannah

      If they’re going to force underweight people to eat they should also force overweight people to go on diets, to be fair. You can’t just have it one sided because binge eating is an eating disorder too. Controlling what people eat is a ridiculous idea. What’s next? Laws about how much sunshine we get? how much exercise we do?

      • HannahBeth

        There’s a difference between forcing an underweight person to eat, and forcing an anorexic person to eat. We’d assume the underweight person was mentally fit, while the anorexic person has a mental disorder. Believe me, I don’t like the government getting involved in personal decisions either, but it seems to me someone has to tell this girl how to take care of herself.