This week, the family of Margaret Bentley, an 82 year old woman with advanced dementia, started a law suit asking the British Columbia Supreme Court to order the care home to stop “force feeding” her.   The family contends that Ms. Bentley, a retired nurse, clearly set out her wishes in her Living Will executed in 1991.  They say that the Living Will states she wishes to die with dignity, and not to be given “nourishments or liquids”.

According to a recent report, one of the defendants in the law suit, the Fraser Health Authority, says it has a legal obligation to care for Ms. Bentley: “if no one fed her, caregivers would be abdicating their responsibilities to provide her with basic essentials. Ignoring such obligations might result in a lawsuit or even a violation of the Criminal Code, Fraser Health contends. It says those obligations trump Bentley’s living will.”

This is a difficult and emotionally charged situation for all parties.  The Court will be asked to decide whether in fact the expression of wishes by Ms. Bentley (in her Living Will) at a time when she was competent to make a choice must now be followed.  Ethical obligations of medical professionals, the rights of individuals to make their own medical decisions, and the collective views of society, as expressed in our laws, will be considered by the Court in reaching its decision.  It will be more than just an interpretation of the law: it will involve broader questions such as what do we believe, as a society, is the “right thing” to do.   

The decision may be very case specific, or may be more broadly worded and applicable to many circumstances.  It may be appealed to the Court of Appeal or perhaps to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Whatever decision is ultimately rendered, one thing is for certain:  this issue will continue to be one that has ardent supporters on both sides.