THE bond between three sisters has led to a new study in to how the families of brain injury victims want their loved ones to be treated.

A study carried out by Prof Celia Kitzinger from the department of sociology at the University of York and her sister, Prof Jenny Kitzinger, at Cardiff University’s school of journalism asked if families, who have severely brain-injured relatives, would consider terminal sedation.

Their sister, Polly, was severely brain injured in a car accident in 2009.

The pair are co-directors of the York-Cardiff Chronic Disorders of Consciousness Research Centre (CDoC) which explores the social and ethical challenges of the vegetative and minimally conscious state.

Prof Celia Kitzinger said: “At the moment it is legal to allow people to die by withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration, but that can mean watching a long, slow death which many relatives just cannot bear the thought of.

“If a court is going to take a decision to allow someone to die, why not do it in a way that’s less prolonged for the patient, or, if the patient is entirely unaware, then at least less distressing for their family?

“There must be a more merciful way of allowing people to die. It’s a message about being merciful and reducing suffering.

“We suggest that the lived reality of the families facing these decisions should be taken into account and that other ways of bringing about the death of severely brain damaged patients should be given full ethical consideration.”

The study found that, although two-thirds of 51 individuals questioned believed their relative would rather be dead than stay alive in a long-term vegetative or minimally conscious state, far fewer were willing to consider an application for withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration to allow death.

Celia and Jenny say the views of relatives should be given ethical consideration in legal and medical debates on treatment options.

Prof Jenny Kitzinger said: “Many of the people we interviewed were concerned that, even with a confirmed vegetative state diagnosis, their relatives would experience pain and suffering if nutrition and hydration were withdrawn or that it would be distressing for other family members to watch.

“There was a widespread perception that lethal injections would be more humane, compassionate and dignified than what they worried was ‘death from neglect’ as a result of treatment withdrawal.”

The research paper Withdrawing Artificial Nutrition and Hydration from Minimally Conscious and Vegetative Patients: Family Perspectives is being published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.