High Court judge Scott Baker said it was the first time an English court had been asked to consider whether such treatment should be withdrawn from a patient who was not in a persistent vegetative state but rather was minimally conscious.
The relatives of the patient, referred to only as M, argued that she would not have wanted to live in her current condition, and applied to the court asking for her food and water to be withdrawn.
Their lawyers argued that, eight years after suffering profound brain damage from viral encephalitis, she had shown no evidence of improvement.
The 52-year-old, who lives in a care home in northern England, is in a minimally conscious state — just above a persistent vegetative state.
The lawyers for M’s family said she was unable to consistently communicate or interact with her environment or with others, could not care for herself and suffered pain and distress.
But a court-appointed lawyer representing the patient argued against the application, saying that she was “otherwise clinically stable”.
The local health authority also opposed the move.
In his ruling, Baker said: “The factor which does carry substantial weight, in my judgment, is the preservation of life.”
“I find that she does have some positive experiences and, importantly, that there is a reasonable prospect that those experiences can be extended by a planned programme of increased stimulation,” he added.
The judge said all parties agreed that an existing “do not resuscitate” order should continue.
Law firm Irwin Mitchell, which represented M’s family, said they were “deeply disappointed” but the case was “very important” in clarifying that the High Court had the power to decide on treatment for minimally conscious patients.
They added that the past eight years had been “heartbreaking” for M’s family.
“They love her dearly and want only what is best for her, and it has been desperately difficult for them to make this application,” they said.
“They believe that M was clear that she would not have wanted to live in the condition that she is in.”
In 2003, when she was supposed to be going on holiday, M, then 43, was found by her partner in a drowsy, confused condition.
She was taken to hospital, where she soon fell into a coma. She was found to have suffered viral encephalitis, which left her with extensive and irreparable brain damage.
Ever since, she has been completely dependent on others for her care, and has been fed via a tube.