End-Stage Heart Disease, High-Risk Research, and Competence to Consent: The Case of the AbioCor Artificial Heart

Some commentators believe that persons facing imminent death are incapable of making autonomous, informed decisions about whether to enter high-risk, end-of-life research trials. Using the AbioCor artificial heart trial as an example, this essay argues to the contrary. Although some people are incapacitated, many are capable of making such decisions. To forbid dying people to make a decision about whether to enter a clinical trial may insult deeply held personal values at a time when honoring those values may be most important. Moreover, to deny dying persons entry into high-risk clinical trials leaves ethically worse alternatives: using healthier people, requiring surrogates to decide even when the patient is competent, or simply forgoing all research featuring high-risk, potentially life-saving interventions. Once we agree that it is at least sometimes acceptable to permit dying persons to choose high-risk research, a number of practical safeguards can be implemented to ameliorate the challenges that can hinder decision making in this difficult area.