Doctors can’t pull plug against family’s wishes: Supreme Court

Supreme Court of Canada

TORONTO – The Supreme Court has ruled that doctors can’t unilaterally withdraw life-support against a family’s wishes, even if they believe medical treatment is futile.

In a 5-2 decision, Canada’s highest court ruled physicians at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto cannot decide on their own to pull the plug on Hassan Rasouli and must go to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to settle the dispute.

Rasouli, a 61-year-old retired mechanical engineer and devout Shia Muslim, has been on life-support at Sunnybrook since October 2010 after contracting bacterial meningitis in the hospital following successful surgery for a benign brain tumour.

The once-vibrant father of two, newly arrived from Iran, slipped into a coma. After six weeks, his medical team announced to his family that there was no hope and they’d be removing his ventilator and feeding tube the next day.

His wife, Parichehr Salasel, a doctor herself in her native Iran, stood in front of Rasouli’s bed and said they’d have to kill her first.

“In the view of Shia Muslims, life is sacred. A person is entitled to remain alive until all signs of life are gone. Preventable death must be prevented,” the family told the Supreme Court.

When doctors and families can’t agree, such end-of-life disputes usually proceed to the Consent and Capacity Board (CCB), where an independent expert panel mediates on what should be done.

Instead, Sunnybrook hospital doctors Brian Cuthbertson and Gordon Rubenfeld went to court to insist that they didn’t need consent to withdraw futile medical treatment.

Since the case began, Rasouli has made some progress and his diagnosis has been upgraded from “vegetative” to “minimally conscious.”

“He’s doing very well,” daughter Mozghan Rasouli said Friday morning before the decision was announced. “Today is just another day.”

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