The Catholic church has said that a court's decision to allow a patient to refuse medical treatment is not the same as allowing euthanasia. But pro-life groups have expressed concern that the ruling might set a dangerous precedent. On Friday, The English high court ruled that a paralysed woman had the right to have her life support machine turned off. Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss, president of the high court's family division, ruled that doctors had been wrong to refuse a request by a 43-year-old woman, known only as Miss B, to let her die. Archbishop Peter Smith, Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff and Chairman of the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said: "The circumstances in which Miss B finds herself are sad and very difficult. It is clear that she is a very impressive and courageous lady who deserves great sympathy. "The court was asked to rule whether she was legally competent to make a decision to refuse life-prolonging treatment which had become burdensome. In this case the court has decided that Miss B is legally competent to make such a decision. The right of a patient to refuse such treatment has long been recognised as legally and morally acceptable. It is important to be clear, however, that this case did not involve questions about euthanasia or assisted suicide and has set no precedents in respect of either. " However, Paul Tully, general secretary of SPUC, commented: "We are profoundly concerned because the legal issues raised by this case weren't properly aired in the legal hearings. This case is different in very significant ways from previous cases in which Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss has ruled that vital care can be withdrawn. On the face of it, the decision could radically change the doctor-patient relationship. "Public policy mustn't be formed on the basis of individual cases of this kind where medical evidence is not properly examined or challenged." The Observer reported yesterday, that the Pope, speaking generally to an international delegation of doctors in Rome, (not in reference to the Miss B case) said doctors should not always use medical science to prolong the lives of patients. Instead, he said, educating people to "a serene acceptance of death" was part of a doctor's mission. "Certainly one cannot forget that man is a mortal being" the Pope said. "There are limits that cannot be humanly surpassed. In these cases one must accept one's human condition with serenity, which the believer is able to interpret in the light of Divine Will." The newspaper added that a Catholic Church spokesman stressed: "The Church does not say that you have to keep someone alive at all costs - but you should not take steps to deliberately shorten a life."
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