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Ethical dilemmas and blood transfusions


This is part one of a Court of Protection decision about a very difficult case, throwing up ethical dilemmas.

Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust and J

The features are so complex that it almost reads like an exam question designed to push the law to its breaking point, but tragically involves a real person.

J is a 23 year old, detained under the Mental Health Act – he has a personality disorder.

. A symptom of his disorder is that “he engages in significant self-harm through self-laceration and bloodletting, most recently by opening his brachial artery”. As I understand it, it is not the opinion of the treating psychiatrist that he suffers from any kind of delusions or delusional disorder. His intelligence is within the range of normal and he appears (although this may require further exploration) to have capacity both to make decisions with regard to his medical treatment and also to instruct lawyers to conduct litigation on his behalf.
he “has a long history of significant and repeated self-harming behaviour. His self-harm includes self-strangulation with ligatures and plastic bags, burning himself, and self-injury, including head-butting and self-laceration. He frequently re-opens wounds to aggravate an existing injury and cause further damage and blood loss.”

J signed an advance directive, specifying that he did not want to accept blood transfusions. His parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and it seems that he had regained that faith.

4. Another aspect of this case is that, because of some history of thrombosis, he is prescribed the anti-coagulant, Warfarin, which has the effect that when he does bleed, he bleeds more profusely than he might otherwise do. Another aspect of the case is that his parents are of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. I understand (although this may later be corrected) that for an appreciable period of time he did not himself profess that faith, but in the last few months he has apparently embraced it and now professes and adheres to the tenets of that particular faith. I have been told in counsel’s case summary that “He has stated that he now practises his religion by praying, reading the bible and reading The Watch Tower magazine. He reports that his religion is important in his life. He remains in contact with his father, who supports him in his faith.” As is widely known, a tenet of the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a prohibition on receiving by transfusion blood or blood products.
5. According to counsel’s case summary, “On 1 February 2014 when in prison he seriously cut his right arm, opening his brachial artery at the antecubital fossa with a razor blade. He had significant blood loss and his haemoglobin fell to an extremely life-threatening level. He was admitted to intensive care and a blood transfusion was advised. He refused blood products on the basis of his Jehovah’s Witness faith. The treating hospital abided by his expressed wish, believing it to be capably stated.” Happily, he in fact survived that event without any blood being transfused.
The Judge looked at the advance directive and circumstances in which it was signed and concluded this

it appears to me that this is clearly an advance decision which was made with capacity and is valid within the meaning of, and for the purposes of, those provisions, and is also one which is applicable to the treatment described in the advance decision, namely a treatment which is transfusions into him of blood or primary blood components (red cells, white cells, plasma or platelets). I am therefore willing to declare on an interim basis that that written advance decision is valid and is applicable to that treatment, not withstanding that (a) his life may be at risk from the refusal of treatment, and (b) he is a patient detained under the Mental Health Acts.
I.e that J had capacity to make the decision that he did not want blood transfusions. Ordinarily, that would be that.

But, when the Mental Health Act comes into play, things become more difficult. There is the power under the MHA s63 for a hospital to provide medical treatment even where the patient does not consent – in effect overriding that objection; IF the medical treatment is for the mental disorder from which he is suffering

“The consent of a patient shall not be required for any medical treatment given to him for the mental disorder from which he is suffering…if the treatment is given by or under the direction of the approved clinician in charge of the treatment.”
The narrowness or otherwise of s63 has been litigated before (most notably in Ian Brady’s case, where feeding him with tubes was held to be a s63 treatment, even though he rationally understood that his hunger strike would result in his death)

There appears to be clear authority, and in particular the decision of the Court of Appeal in B v Croydon Health Authority [1995] Fam 133, to the effect that the expression “medical treatment given to him for the mental disorder from which he is suffering” is wide enough to extend to medical treatment for physical conditions caused or arising as a result of the underlying mental disorder. Thus if a detained patient suffers from the mental disorder of anorexia, it may be lawful to force-feed that patient as part of “medical treatment given to him for the mental disorder from which he is suffering.” If a detained patient cuts himself as a result of a self-harming mental disorder, then it may be lawful under that section to treat and stitch up the cuts. It is little or no extension of that approach that if, as a result of the mental disorder from which he is suffering, a patient cuts himself and bleeds so profusely that he needs a blood transfusion, it is part of the “medical treatment…for the mental disorder from which he is suffering” to give a medically necessary blood transfusion. So the question arises in this tragic situation, on the particular facts of this case (he being a detained mental patient), as to the interrelation between the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 in relation to advance decisions and the power under section 63 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to give medical treatment notwithstanding the absence of a consent.
So, it appears that the hospital could legally authorise blood transfusions even though J was objecting to them and had capacity to make that decision.

But, the hospital (I think very properly) felt uncomfortable about doing that, and wanted to place the issues before the Court
13. The dilemma is very well expressed in the statement by the treating psychiatrist, who says,
“I am…aware…that because [the patient] is a detained patient under section 63 of the Mental Health Act I have a power, as his responsible clinician, to override even a capable refusal of medical treatment [viz the advance decision] where that treatment is for the consequences of his mental disorder. It is my opinion that his self-harming behaviour that gives rise to the need for blood products is a direct consequence of his mental disorder and that hence I could use section 63 powers to enforce treatment with blood products upon him despite his capacitous refusal. I have some ethical difficulty in using the Mental Health Act to override a capacitous patient’s wishes based on religious wishes and I would not choose to use my Mental Health Act powers to override his advance decision.”
14. Pausing there, it can at once be seen why I said earlier in this judgment that this case raises ethical issues, for there is the treating doctor herself saying that she professionally feels “some ethical difficulty” in overriding his advance decision even though she has a power to do so under section 63 of the Mental Health Act 1983 and even though he might otherwise die. She continues in her statement:
“However, because of the significant consequences of abiding by his advance decision, which could result in his death, I seek a declaration from the Court as to (1) whether the advance decision is valid and applicable (on taking account of the context that he is refusing life-saving treatment for self-harm which is medicated through his mental disorder) and, if so, (2) whether in coming to my view that blood products should not be enforced upon him in the light of a valid and applicable advance decision, I have correctly struck the balance between the right to freedom of religion and the Article 2 right to life of a detained patient.”


The hospital were therefore of the view that although they COULD exercise their power under s63 MHA to compel blood transfusions, they did not feel that they SHOULD.

Pausing there, a question arises as to whether the Court is the right place to make decisions about medical ethics. As Holman J points out (though in neater language than I use) – If you want law, Courts are the right place, if you want ethics you may be in the wrong place.

I must stress at once that it is never the business of a court in these sorts of situations to make any kind of ethical decision. That is a matter for doctors alone, applying such guidance, if any, as they can obtain from their professional medical bodies. All the court can do is state the applicable law and, where appropriate, apply it in the form of a legal, though not necessarily an ethical, decision.


The Court felt uncomfortable about trying to resolve this dilemma without someone speaking on behalf of J, and decided that J’s voice had to be heard before any decision could properly be made

16. The passage that I have just quoted from the statement of the psychiatrist very clearly highlights the terrible dilemma in this case. On the one hand, this young adult has made a clear advance decision, whilst apparently having capacity to do so, that, because of his religious beliefs, he utterly refuses consent and positively directs that he should not be transfused with blood or blood products. On the other hand, he is compulsorily detained, both as a prisoner and now in a psychiatric hospital, where, so far as possible and lawful, the state is under obvious duties to protect him, as the consultant psychiatrist identified in the above passage. He has a right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights; but, under other articles of that Convention, he has a right to freedom of religion and a right to respect for his private life, which includes his own bodily integrity.
17. I have been asked today to make an interim declaration that “it is lawful for those responsible for the medical care of the respondent to act in accordance with his written advance decision and withhold treatment by blood transfusion or with blood products in accordance with his expressed wishes notwithstanding the existence of powers under section 63 of the Mental Health Act 1983.” That is not a declaration which I feel equipped or am willing to make after a hearing of this kind in which I have heard representations from only one side and which is not on notice to the patient or any other person. It is of the essence of the application to the court that this is an issue of very considerable difficulty. Precisely because it is one of such difficulty, it is not one upon which the court can judicially and responsibly rule without hearing and considering so far as possible the arguments on both sides of the issue.
It will be interesting to know how part two develops.

The continuing dilemma for the court is that, unless somebody such as the Official Solicitor engages in this case, there may be no contrary argument. The present position of the patient seems to be that he utterly refuses to consent to a transfusion even if that has the effect of his dying as a result of his self-harming acts (even if those acts are not themselves done with suicidal intent). The position at the moment of the consulting psychiatrist, and therefore of the Trust, is that, notwithstanding the power under section 63, they should not in fact exercise it. Thus, the present position seems to be that if the physical restraints are removed and he is able again to cause profuse bleeding, he may die, whether he intends to bring about his death or not. If there is a contrary argument that the power under section 63 should be positively exercised in circumstances such as this, then it will be very important indeed for the court to hear it.


If I were making a prediction, it would be that the Court will decide that the hospital COULD use s63, but fall short of saying that they SHOULD. I think that the Court will probably make the declaration that the Trust seek

“it is lawful for those responsible for the medical care of the respondent to act in accordance with his written advance decision and withhold treatment by blood transfusion or with blood products in accordance with his expressed wishes notwithstanding the existence of powers under section 63 of the Mental Health Act 1983”

But Article 2, and the authorities on the article 2 right to life are probably going to play a significant role in the decision, and I think it could go the other way.

To be clear, the Court cannot MAKE the hospital perform the blood transfusions, but declining to make the declaration that they seek that they SHOULD NOT do it and honour J’s advance directive makes life very uncomfortable for them if they decide not to.


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

2 responses

  1. Strange, they are actually going to get the opinion of the patient? I would have thought that would be the common sense thing to do.

  2. Pingback: Ethical dilemmas and blood transfusions | Legal...

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