Ethical decision-making near the end of life

T. E. Finucane, M. Harper

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


For ethical decision-making near the end of life, autonomy is the moral North Star. At the same time, for some treatments, the burdens so clearly outweigh benefits that physicians may make a judgment not to offer the treatment. This is often clearer in surgery. A person with colon cancer and metastases may not insist on resection of the metastases. For some reason, some treatments have escaped these logical constraints. Attempted resuscitation of a dying patient is a good example. The circumstances in which a physician may make choices on behalf of a competent, terminally-ill patient without consent, and even without notification, are hotly debated, but data suggest that physicians do so frequently. Patients who lack capacity present even more difficult challenges. Advance directives, when available, can be extremely helpful, but even with them difficult problems can remain. If advance directives have not been established, family and close friends are an obvious source of guidance. Their legal role varies in different jurisdictions; in practice, they are crucial in bedside decision-making. Guardianship and alternatives to it remain a poor last resort. Euthanasia is a very difficult problem. We believe it is semantically misleading to lump under the term 'passive euthanasia' those circumstances where potentially life-sustaining treatment is withheld or withdrawn. The tension between patient autonomy and medical common sense remains unresolved within the 'futility' controversy. The authors believe it serves no purpose to discuss carefully with dying patients propositions that are nonsense. At the same time, physicians must not confuse decisions about quality of life with judgements about treatment effectiveness. We believe that what many, although not all, dying patients want are physicians with intelligent compassion who can take care of them through the dying process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)369-377
Number of pages9
JournalClinics in geriatric medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology

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