Doctors who let a 26-year-old woman die after she swallowed antifreeze acted within the law, a coroner has ruled.
Kerrie Wooltorton, of Norwich in eastern England, is believed to be the first person to use a living will to commit suicide, The Guardian newspaper reported Thursday.
She wrote the document on Sept. 15, 2007, three days before she poisoned herself. She called an ambulance, which took her to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. There, she gave doctors a letter addressed to “To whom this may concern.”
“If I come into hospital regarding an overdose or any attempt of my life, I would like for NO life saving treatment to be given,” she wrote in the letter, which Sky News printed on its Web site.
“I am aware that you may think that because I called the ambulance I therefore want treatment, THIS IS NOT THE CASE! I do however want to be comfortable as nobody wants to die alone and scared and without going into details there are loads of reasons I do not want to die at home which I realize you will not understand and I apologise for this,” she wrote. Wooltorton had been depressed over her inability to have a child, an inquest into her death heard. Doctors said they feared they would be charged with assault if they treated her because she had made her wishes clear, The Telegraph reported.
“It is a double-bind for doctors. She was very clear in her wishes. To have forced treatment on her would have been unlawful,” hospital spokesman Andrew Stronach said, according to the Norwich Evening News.
Her family has said doctors should have tried to save her, despite her written instructions. But the doctors said Wooltorton was considered mentally competent to decide on treatment — or refuse it.
“Please be assured that I am 100% aware of the consequences of this and the probable outcome of drinking antifreeze, eg death in 95-99% of cases and if I survive then kidney failure, I understand and accept them and will take 100% responsibility for this,” she wrote.
Greater Norfolk Coroner William Armstrong said Monday that the hospital could not be blamed for Wooltorton’s death. “She had capacity to consent to treatment which, it is more likely than not, would have prevented her death,” he said. “She refused such treatment in full knowledge of the consequences and died as a result.”
Living wills are commonly associated with people who are terminally ill and wish to refuse treatment, or people who would not want to be kept alive if they were mentally incapacitated in some sort of accident. In England, living wills were introduced under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act.
The ProLife Alliance called for a change in the law.
“A lot of people who attempt to commit suicide are thankful they have been revived the next day,” said the group’s chairwoman, Dominica Roberts.