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NY Prisoner May Refuse Life-Saving Medical Treatment

The New York Supreme Court refused to authorize prison officials to treat a prisoner’s diabetes without his consent.

New York prisoner Joseph Barbati suffered from Type II diabetes but refused his insulin shots “because, in his opinion, the side effects of insulin include painful swelling of his legs and feet and, possibly, heart attacks.” He believed he could “successfully control his blood sugar by eating a careful diet, getting exercise and taking the oral medications prescribed to him.” Despite maximum dosages, however, Barbati could not control his blood sugar.

Prison superintendent Dale Artus sought a court order permitting prison officials to treat Barbati’s diabetes, without his consent. One doctor testified that Barbati’s blood sugar levels were “dangerously high” and that he had “already suffered damaged kidneys and nerves as a result.” Without treatment, Barbati could “expect damage to his eyes, dehydration, confusion and coma” within days or weeks, according to the doctor.

The court found that there was no evidence to support a claim that Barbati was incompetent. “In New York the law is settled that ‘a competent adult has the right to determine the course of his or her own medical treatment, and may decline even life saving measures, in the absence of a superior State interest.’” The court found that Barbati’s “decision is hurting no one but himself.” Given that there was “no evidence at all that his behavior has caused any disruption of the …orderly operation of the prison or the infirmary,” the court held that “the State’s interest in the health of and obligation to take proper care of an inmate must yield to the inmate’s right as a competent adult to make a decision affecting his own health, even a decision that would appear to endanger his health.” See: In the Matter of Artus, No. 03-0746 (NY S.Ct. 2003).

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Related legal case

In the Matter of Artus