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Daughter Majgan, right, and wife Parichehr Salasel display family photos to Hassan Rasouli at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Dec. 06 2012.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The religious beliefs of a vegetative patient on life support cannot be a determining factor in whether or not he is allowed to die, the Supreme Court of Canada was told this morning.

"Doctors must refuse a wish for inappropriate treatment," Harry Underwood, a lawyer for several doctors caught up in a right-to-live struggle told a seven-judge panel.

"Wishes cannot override the standard of care. The result is the same whether it is a religious belief or a non-religious belief. All wishes deserve the same respect."

The court panel began a one-day hearing Monday morning into the historic appeal involving end-of-life treatment. It is expected to release a ruling in several months.

The court will decide whether an unconscious man at the centre of the case, Hassan Rasouli, can be take off the life-support devices that have sustained him since his brain was attacked by a post-surgery infection in late 2010.

Mr. Rasouli's family insist that the family's devout Islamic belief dictates that Mr. Rasouli must be kept alive as long as humanly possible.

However, the Sunnybrook Health Centre doctors caring for Mr. Rasouli maintain that their medical judgment should be the determining factor – and they believe he should be taken off life support.

Mr. Underwood said that doctors do not simply ignore the perspective of a family or substitute decision-maker, but it would be medically and ethically wrong for them to let it sway their medical conclusions.

Patients who are kept alive despite there being no hope of recovery waste away as their bodies degenerate, he said.

"Artificially prolonging life inflicts a terrible indignity," Mr. Underwood said. "These patients are not just kept alive – they are forced to be kept alive."

Despite the importance of the case, Mr. Justice Michael Moldaver is not sitting on the panel because he helped craft the Ontario Court of Appeal decision that is under appeal.

To prevent the possibility of a tie vote, the court's most junior judge – Mr. Justice Richard Wagner – was also left off the appeal panel.

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