Volume 5, Issue 2

Leigh B. Middleditch, Jr. and Joel H. Trotter

As medical technology has developed to enable doctors to keep incompetent patients alive on life-support systems, the legal issue relating to the authority to discontinue medical treatment has grown. In this essay, Messrs. Middleditch and Trotter address the right to live: the issue of whether a doctor should be able to discontinue the medical treatment of an incompetent patient against the wishes of the patient’s guardian. Messrs. Middleditch and Trotter analyze three cases where doctors wanted to disconnect the life support system of an incompetent person against the wishes of the patient’s guardian or family members and find that courts differ in their approaches to the problem. The authors hypothesize that the right-to-live issue stems partly from our culture’s denial of death’s reality, partly from our reverence for patient autonomy, and mostly from economic concerns. Finally, the authors describe several proposals advanced by those in the medical and legal community which aim to clarify and resolve right-to-live issues. These proposals include: that the medical community should deny treatment defined to be futile; that the presumption of treating persons in a persistent vegetative state should be changed to a presumption of not treating such persons; and, that limits on disproportionately expensive treatments should be acknowledged and defined.