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  • Comment on Hospice of Washington's Policy
  • John A. Robertson (bio)

The recent history of medical ethics may accurately be described as a history of coming to terms with personal autonomy and informed consent across the range of medical practice. Nowhere has this recognition been more important than in decisions to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining medical procedures from terminal and chronically ill patients.

Despite the widespread acceptance of autonomy in these decisions, many people—physicians, families, and policymakers—have balked at extending it to the withdrawal of artificially supplied fluids and nutrition. The symbolic connotations of food and water have led some persons to perceive cessation of medically-supplied fluids and nutrition to be a cruel, barbarous act, rather than the merciful respect for the dying patient that such withdrawal usually represents.

Two recent events might help resolve the controversy, and ensure that decisions about artificial fluid and nutrition are handled like any other medical intervention—according to patient and family choice and patient welfare. One event is the Supreme Court decision in Cruzan (Cruzan v. Director of Missouri Department of Health, 110 S.Ct. 2841, 1990). Although the Supreme Court upheld Missouri's constitutional power to require artificial nutrition for a patient in a persistent vegetative state, its decision was not based on the symbolic importance of artificial fluids and nutrition. No Supreme Court justice saw a significant difference between medically-supplied nutrition and hydration and other medical interventions, thus allowing them to be discontinued either directly or by advance directive on the same basis as other medical interventions.

The second event is the publication of the statement of "Philosophy Regarding Medical Intervention to Supply Fluids and Nutrition" by Hospice of Washington (or similar statements by other organizations). This statement is useful and important because it removes the issue of food and water from its symbolic overlay [End Page 139] and places it in the real context of dying hospice patients. It makes clear that the overriding consideration should be benefit to the patient "in accord with the patient's wishes or those of the appropriate surrogate(s) for the patient." Depending on those wishes and their impact on the patient, this position may or may not involve medically-supplied fluids and nutrition.

This statement is also helpful in showing the medical complexity of such decisions in terms of their actual effect on dying patients. Rather than an either/or position, it recognizes that fluids may harm a dying patient by increasing discomfort, and that "persons near death do not ordinarily tolerate substantial volumes of enteral feedings." Thus rather than adhere to a symbolically-based position about the meaning of food and water to a dying patient, the important thing is to look to that patient's needs and give fluids or not, as the patient's wishes and situation demand.

Fortunately, the law in most jurisdictions will recognize such a position. In those few jurisdictions that have made a fetish of artificial fluids and nutrition, the law should be changed, for the HOW statement makes clear that such a position may actually end up harming dying patients. Patient welfare should be privileged above all else, and patient welfare may often entail that fluids and nutrition not be medically supplied. Even then, however, caregivers will look to patient comfort and remedy dry mouths and lips with lubricants and ice chips.

The HOW statement is, in my view, a very useful guideline not only for hospices but for hospitals, too—for any situation in which a patient is terminally ill and soon to die. A somewhat different set of issues arises, however, when the patient is chronically ill and incompetent, and will survive for long periods with medically-supplied fluids and nutrition. Recognition of patient rights in those situation should also permit cessation of fluids and nutrition on the same basis that respirators, antibiotics, and other life-sustaining measures may be withheld. But the withholding of medically-supplied fluids and nutrition from a patient who no longer has interests in surviving in an extremely debilitated condition raises different issues from withholding fluids that could cause such discomfort and nutrition when the patient is imminently dying. In either case, patient...


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pp. 139-140
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