Withholding/Withdrawal Life Support:Killing vs Letting Die
A topic which I have posed on my currently not updated "Bioethics Discussion Pages" is one of whether patient or surrogate requested removal of life support or to withhold life supportive treatment represents forms of "killing" or is it really a process of "letting" the patient die from the underlying disease for which the life support was being or was to be used. A visitor to that web site wrote me the following response which I thought was so well written that I would put it up on this blog. What do you think are the distinctions? ..Maurice.
Your question important for all of us. My father-in-law chose death at his
own hand when confronted with a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer which
would have lead to a slow death by starvation and the likelihood of
institutional care. My own father died a "natural" death from congestive
heart failure. His multiple organ failures (kidney, heart, and lungs) lead
to hallucinations and increasing levels of frustration and angst as his
periods of lucidity waned. He was "made comfortable" with high levels of
morphine derivatives to enable him to rest "comfortably". In both cases
their deaths were hastened either by overt means or decisions not to intrude
with life supporting machines (kidney dialysis in my dad's case).
Is the refusal to utilize treatments that might cheat death for a period of
time any different from the decision to remove such life support when the
individual involved no longer can enjoy any quality from the "life" such
machines and intrusions provide? I don't think so. We all share one
commonality in this life - we will die. While few of us want to reach the
termination of life, the reality is that we all must.
When the death knell tolls we should each have the option to pursue
treatments that will delay our demise and also the ability to express
through living wills or direct discussions with our attending physicians and
our loved ones the circumstances under which we do not wish to continue with
life sustaining efforts. The question regarding removal of life sustaining
equipment begs a simpler question for me: has the life sustaining equipment
really replaced the failed organ meaning I can live my life in the same
manner as I did before the organ failed, or has it merely replaced the basic
function of the failed organ and in so doing has irreparably changed my
quality of life by either restricting my mobility or my ability to live
My dad suffered from congestive heart failure for several years after
successfully battling lymphoma with an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.
Basically, the patient was cured but at the expense of his heart function.
For a time he was able to live a fairly normal life through the
administration of several drugs to assist his heart in removing fluids from
his body. We enjoyed family vacations to Alaska and Europe with him after
his successful lymphoma treatments. His stamina wasn't 100%, but he was able
to enjoy his life. However, when he sustained major organ failure he was
sentenced to a bedridden existence. Kidney dialysis might have prolonged his
life, but it wouldn't have enabled him to walk, live in his home and enjoy
family gatherings ever again. In short, his lifestyle was altered in a way
that was unacceptable to him.
I wish as a society we could step back from our religious views, our
political posturing and our belief in the sanctity of life and consider for
just a moment that each of us will one day face our own moment of truth. How
do we want to pass from this existence? With compassionate medical care that
can be tailored to our own wishes or with archaic handwringing that leaves
everyone dissatisfied and puts medical practitioners in the position of
"playing god" or, perhaps worse, risking legal and criminal complaints for
In the ideal, the patient's wishes should be clearly communicated to family
and medical practitioners so the level and duration of care administered
will be consistent with those wishes. In this scenario your question is
easily answered. The doctor who "pulls the plug" has done so at the
patient's request and is merely allowing to take place what would have
already happened were it not for the medical intercession.
I came to your site from your blog and appreciate the opportunity to express