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Australian granted right to starve to death dies of infection

  • Story Highlights
  • Series of accidents in 1988 left Christian Rossiter unable to live normally
  • Rossiter: "I can't even wipe the tears from my eyes"
  • Ruling meant nursing facility would not be held liable for allowing him to die
  • Critics said the ruling would set a dangerous precedent
By Arthur Brice
CNN
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(CNN) -- An Australian quadriplegic who won the right to refuse food and water died Monday of an upper respiratory infection, his brother and a right-to-die advocate said.

An Australian high court ruled Christian Rossiter had the right to refuse food and water.

An Australian high court ruled Christian Rossiter had the right to refuse food and water.

Christian Rossiter had not started his fast but had refused antibiotics and other medical treatment, said Philip Nitschke, director of Exit International, a leading global voluntary euthanasia and end-of-life advocacy group.

"I spoke with him Thursday and he was very ill at time," Nitschke said in a telephone interview from Australia. "He was quite aware of his plight."

Rossiter, 49, won a court case in Australia last month that some described as a major victory for right-to-die proponents. In a rare legal finding, the Supreme Court of Western Australia ruled that Rossiter had the right to refuse food and water. The ruling meant that the nursing facility in which Rossiter had lived since November 2008 could not be held criminally liable for allowing the patient to die, the court said.

"I'm happy that I won my right to die," Rossiter said at the time.

Rossiter's younger brother, Tim, said Monday he is relieved his brother's suffering has ended. "I saw him just previous to his passing away," he said, adding that his brother was grateful that he was able to end his life.

He had been seeking the right to refuse food and water "going back to the middle of last year," Tim Rossiter said.

Christian Rossiter suffered a series of injuries starting in 1988 that left him with limited foot movement and the ability to wriggle only one finger. He was fed through a stomach tube. He relied on staff at the Brightwater Care Group nursing facility in the city of Perth for such routine care as regular turning, cleaning, assistance with bowel movements, physical and occupational therapy and speech pathology.

"He wasn't even able to scratch his nose," the brother said Monday.

Tim Rossiter said he is opposed to legal euthanasia because some people might try to persuade a relative to die in order to reap financial benefits. But he fully supported his brother's decision.

"If I was in my brother's shoes -- and I pray to God I don't end up in his situation -- yes, I would do the same thing," he told CNN.

He said his brother received excellent care -- "second to none" -- at the Brightwater facility. And Tim Rossiter said he bought his brother a top-notch TV and other items to try to make him comfortable.

"There was nothing we could do," he said. "We offered him everything, but we could not give him the thing he wanted most -- his mobility. That was the saddest thing. He was never ever going to be able to take a walk along the beach again."

Rossiter said he has been criticized for supporting his brother.

"People have pointed their finger at me as if I instigated it," he said.

Some family and right-to-life groups opposed Christian Rossiter's request.

"Really, what we should be doing is looking after each other rather than facilitating an escape," John Barich of the Australian Family Association said in a TV interview last month.

Peter O'Meara, president of Western Australia's Right to Life Association, said after the court ruling, "The law which is being applied can be a dangerous precedent."

Nitschke, the right-to-die advocate, said Rossiter was very weak when they talked last week. "It was a difficult phone call," he said. "It did have the feeling of a good-bye phone call."

Nitschke had noted last month that Rossiter's court case was significant because his mind was fully functional.

"This is the first time that it's come up with a person that's rational and lucid," Nitschke said. "This is unusual. It's very rare."

Chief Justice Wayne Martin acknowledged that distinction in his order, saying, "Mr. Rossiter is not a child, nor is he terminally ill, nor dying. He is not in a vegetative state, nor does he lack the capacity to communicate his wishes. There is therefore no question of other persons making decisions on his behalf.

"Rather, this is a case in which a person with full mental capacity and the ability to communicate his wishes has indicated that he wishes to direct those who have assumed responsibility for his care to discontinue the provision of treatment which maintains his existence."

Rossiter had attended the hearing in a wheelchair, breathing through a tracheotomy tube in his throat. He told the judge he wanted to die.

It's a point he often made publicly.

"I can't move," Rossiter said in a televised interview in August. "I can't even wipe the tears from my eyes. And I'd like to die. I'm imprisoned in my own body. I have no fear of death. Just pain."

Rossiter had pointed out in an interview with the PerthNow news outlet that he once led an active life.

"This is living hell," he is quoted as saying. "I used to be a cyclist, I used to be a keen walker. I bushwalked around the world. ... I've rock climbed in Yosemite Valley in California up very steep cliffs. I've got a degree in economics and now I can't even read a newspaper. I can't turn the pages."

Rossiter had no other close family members, his brother said. The funeral is scheduled for Wednesday.

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