Withdrawal of Nonfutile Life Support After Attempted Suicide

American Journal of Bioethics 13 (3):3-12 (2013)
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Abstract

End-of-life decision making is fraught with ethical challenges. Withholding or withdrawing life support therapy is widely considered ethical in patients with high treatment burden, poor premorbid status, or significant projected disability even when such treatment is not “futile.” Whether such withdrawal of therapy in the aftermath of attempted suicide is ethical is not well established in the literature. We provide a clinical vignette and propose criteria under which such withdrawal would be ethical. We suggest that it is appropriate to withdraw life support, regardless of the cause of the critical illness or disability, when the following criteria are met: Surrogates request withdrawal of care and the adequacy of surrogates is confirmed, an external reasonability standard is met, passage of time, perhaps 72 hours, to allow certainty regarding the patient's wishes, and psychiatric morbidity should be considered as grounds for withdrawal only in truly treatment-refractory cases. Fundamentally, we believe the question to ask is, “If this were not an attempted suicide, would a request to withdraw care be reasonable?” We believe that under these circumstances, such withdrawal of life support, even in an individual who has attempted suicide, does not constitute physician assistance with suicide and is distinct from physician aid-in-dying in several important respects.

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