Traversing boundaries: Clinical ethics, moral experience, and the withdrawal of life supports

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 23 (3):233-258 (2002)
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Abstract

While many have suggested that to withdraw medical interventions is ethically equivalent to withholding them, the moral complexity of actually withdrawing life supportive interventions from a patient cannot be ignored. Utilizing interplay between expository and narrative styles, and drawing upon our experiences with patients, families, nurses, and physicians when life supports have been withdrawn, we explore the changeable character of boundaries in end-of-life situations. We consider ways in which boundaries imply differences – for example, between cognition and performance – and how the encounter with boundaries can generate altered meanings important for understanding decisions and actions in these contexts. We conclude that the reliance on mere roles to support the moral weight of withdrawing medical interventions is inadequate. Roles that lead us to such moments are exceeded by the responsibility encountered in such moments. And here, we suggest, is the momentous character of withdrawal: it presents the grave astonishment, the trembling awe, in the not-being-there of the other in death.

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