Ethical considerations in the treatment of chronic psychosis in a periviable pregnancy

Clinical Ethics 18 (1):113-119 (2023)
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Abstract

Background: Treatment of psychotic disorders in pregnancy is often ethically and clinically challenging, especially when psychotic symptoms impair decision-making capacity. There are several competing ethical obligations to consider: the ethical obligation to maternal autonomy, the maternal and fetal beneficence-based obligations to treat peripartum psychosis, and the fetal beneficence-based obligation to minimize teratogenic exposure. Objective: This article outlines an ethical framework for clinical decision-making for the management of chronic psychosis in pregnancy, with an emphasis on special considerations in the previable and periviable period. Case Presentation: A 31-year-old gravida 2, para 1 with intrauterine pregnancy at 12 weeks and 4 days gestation was brought to the emergency department by her husband seven months after delivering her first child, due to sudden onset of behavioral changes that included self-isolation, not eating, and not taking care of her child. Her past medical history included hypothyroidism and inflammatory bowel disease, but no prior psychiatric illness. After being admitted to the psychiatric hospital, she continued to have poor oral intake and weight loss despite initial inpatient treatment with antipsychotics, levothyroxine, and discontinuation of corticosteroids. Her pregnancy was also complicated by the diagnosis of multiple fetal anomalies at 20 weeks gestation, when the fetus was periviable. Conclusions: For previable or periviable pregnancies, the patient and/or surrogate should decide whether to pursue prenatal genetic screening and invasive diagnostic testing, as well as whether to continue or terminate the pregnancy. When the choice is made to continue the pregnancy, initiation of long-term psychiatric treatment (including medications with potential adverse fetal effects) should be based on shared decision-making between the physician and the patient and/or surrogate. Although some pharmacologic interventions may have potential adverse effects on the developing fetus, the use of psychotropic medications can be ethically justified, even if the patient herself does not have the capacity to consent and requires a surrogate, when the goal is to restore maternal autonomy and minimize the risks of maternal and fetal harm from untreated psychiatric illness.

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Laurence McCullough
Baylor College of Medicine

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