Law & Medicine

Forgoing artificial nutrition and hydration



Question: Which of the following statements regarding artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) is least supported in ethics and/or law?

A. One may invoke medical futility and discontinue ANH in noncognitive, terminally ill patients.

B. Forgoing ANH at the end of life is part of good palliative care.

C. Tube feeding is a way to provide food and sustenance and does not constitute medical treatment.

D. Many state statutes allow for the discontinuation of ANH under specified conditions.

E. Discontinuing ANH is most contentious when it affects a young, otherwise healthy person in a persistent vegetative state.

Answer: C.

Only a few decades ago, litigation over end-of-life care took the form of surrogates demanding to stop treatment, e.g., mechanical ventilation, against the orders of the hospital and doctors.1 The parties now tend to reverse their positions, with some families insisting on continuing all treatment modalities, especially artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) such as tube feedings. Medical futility has been variously defined as an intervention that has no pathophysiologic rationale, where such intervention had already failed in the patient, where maximal treatment is already failing, or where the intervention will not achieve the goals of care. The AMA Code of Medical Ethics advises: “Physicians are not ethically obligated to deliver care that, in their best professional judgment, will not have a reasonable chance of benefiting their patients. Patients should not be given treatments simply because they demand them.”2 The AMA Code also clarifies that “life-sustaining treatment is any treatment that serves to prolong life without reversing the underlying medical condition” and “may include … artificial nutrition and hydration.”3

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Although many palliative care specialists have deemed ANH to be of dubious medical benefit at the end of life,4 forgoing ANH nonetheless poses a particularly contentious dilemma. Opponents assert that ANH is a form of feeding rather than medical treatment, denial of which amounts to “starving” the patient to death. However in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court in Cruzan v. Director5 declared that ANH could not be readily distinguished from other forms of medical treatment. The case involved a 25-year-old woman who lapsed into a persistent vegetative state (PVS) following an automobile accident. Her parents sought a court order to withdraw ANH when it became apparent that she had virtually no chance of recovering her cognitive faculties. Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor opined: “Whether or not the techniques used to pass food and water into the patient’s alimentary tract are termed ‘medical treatment,’ it is clear they all involve some degree of intrusion and restraint. … Feeding a patient by means of a nasogastric tube requires a physician to pass a long flexible tube through the patient’s nose, throat, and esophagus and into the stomach. Because of the discomfort such a tube causes, ‘many patients need to be restrained forcibly and their hands put into large mittens to prevent them from removing the tube.’ A gastrostomy tube … or jejunostomy tube must be surgically implanted into the stomach or small intestine. … Requiring a competent adult to endure such procedures against her will burdens the patient’s liberty, dignity, and freedom to determine the course of her own treatment.”

The English High Court has likewise adopted this position in Airedale NHS Trust v. Bland.6 Tony Bland, a young man, was crushed in a Hillsborough football melee in 1989, which caused him to develop PVS. The court wrote: “The question is not whether it is in the best interests of the patient that he should die. The question is whether it is in the best interests of the patient that his life should be prolonged by the continuance of this form of medical treatment or care. The correct formulation of the question is of particular importance in a case such as the present, where the patient is totally unconscious or where there is no hope whatsoever of any amelioration of his condition.”

In 2005, the United States witnessed its most public and highly politicized case regarding the withdrawal of ANH.7 In 1990, Terri Schiavo, then age 26, sustained a cardiac arrest, possibly caused by an eating disorder and hypokalemia. Her husband, Michael, filed a malpractice suit and won damages of $1.5 million, but the arrest left her in a PVS. Terri had left no advance directive, and her husband said she would rather die than be kept alive artificially, and therefore directed that her tube feeding be stopped. On the other hand, her parents Bob and Mary Schindler wished to keep her alive, and volunteered to take care of her. After a long and bitter legal battle, an appellate court finally agreed to stop Terri’s tube feeding, as it found clear and convincing evidence that she would not have wanted to live in that manner. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. On Oct. 15, 2003, with the discontinuation of her tube feeding, Terri’s parents appealed to then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, calling into question the diagnosis of PVS. They insisted Terri’s eyes were open, and she appeared to respond with smiles to the sound of her mother’s voice. Despite contrary expert opinion, 15 doctors testified she could and would improve. Both the Florida legislature and the U.S. Congress intervened but to no avail. Terri died at 10 a.m. on March 31, 2005, 13 days after tube withdrawal. An autopsy revealed severe brain atrophy.


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