Americans Support Patient Choice for Life Over ‘Quality of Life’ Ethic

A February Wirthlin Worldwide notion that patients who have a so-called low “quality of life” should be denied life-saving medical care. By clear majorities — 79 percent to 19 percent — of Americans feel that patients or their families should be allowed the choice to receive life support even if a doctor thinks the patient’s quality of life is too low to merit life support.

A growing number of ethicists have been advocating — and hospitals implementing — procedures under which life-saving medical treatment is denied against the will of patients and their families. For example, an August, 1996 Journal of the American Medical Association article described policies in Houston, Texas under which hospital ethics committees can order that patients be allowed to die against their will or their families. In reaction, five states (MD, MN, OH, OK, SD) have enacted laws requiring that when patients or families want treatment that in reasonable medical judgment is likely to prevent the death of the patient, hospitals must provide it at least until the patient can be transferred to a facility willing to honor the choice for life. The issue is expected to come up in the legislatures of at least four states this year (AR, FL, NY, TX) and may arise in U.S. Congress.

“Over three-quarters of the public evidently believe that the right of patients and their families to make treatment decisions includes the right to choose life,” said Burke Balch, the director of National Right to Life’s Department of Medical Ethics. “Americans overwhelmingly reject the dangerous idea that a doctor or ethics committee can tell people who want to live that because of their disability or age they must die.”


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