Autonomy and the refusal of life-prolonging therapy

Res Publica 1 (2):147-162 (1995)
Abstract
Autonomous decision-making over therapy options is not reducible to the refusal of unwanted medical intervention. This is a myth that has been imported from questionable assumptions in political economy, and is of little benefit to medical practice and the sometimes agonizing decisions which have to be taken by patients and their relatives. An individual's right to therapy abatement can be protected from abuse only in the context of a full understanding of autonomous choice; not merely the right to refuse, but the opportunity to receive assistance and consider alternatives. Limits are also required on the role of the surrogate in the refusal of therapy. Policies endorsing therapy abatement and exercise of the right to forego life-sustaining therapy should carry cast iron guarantees that they will not be disadvantageous to the poor and undereducated members of society. It should also be noted that fears of unlimited life-prolongation have been greatly exaggerated. In an atmosphere of governmental indifference to the plight of the sick, with the notion of welfare tuned to market forces, there is a danger that self-determination can have a restricted meaning; the option of death in the context of an underfunded health service. This may not be the time to campaign for the right to refuse therapy, but rather the time to campaign for improvements to existing therapy
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