Bioethics Blogs

A Matter of Life and Death

Guest Post by Professor Lynn Turner-Stokes

Re: A matter of life and death – controversy at the interface between clinical and legal decision-making in prolonged disorders of consciousness

In an article published in the JME, I highlight the confusion that exists amongst many clinicians, lawyers and members of the public about decisions with withdraw life-sustaining treatments from patients in permanent vegetative and minimally conscious states.

Recent improvements in acute care for patient who have suffered catastrophic brain injury undoubtedly save lives. However, some patients who would otherwise have died now survive but remain profoundly disabled. Many patients experience a brief period of unconsciousness (or ‘coma’) lasting a few days or weeks. However, an unfortunate few with very severe brain injury remain in a vegetative and minimally conscious state (VS/MCS) for many months – or in some cases permanently.

Unfortunately the lay press, and even much of the medical literature, tends to conflate VS/MCS with coma, but they are in fact very different. Coma is a state of ‘unrousable unresponsiveness’ from which the patient cannot be awakened. It rarely persists for more than a few days or weeks, as the large majority of patients will either die or start to regain consciousness. Patients in VS or MCS are awake, but have either very limited awareness of themselves and their environment (MCS), or none at all (VS). With supportive treatment, many will live in these states for a decade or more.

Patients in VS/MCS are unable to make decisions regarding their care and treatment. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA) provides a framework for clinicians to make ‘best interests’ decisions for them, working with family members to take into account the patient’s own likely wishes, values and beliefs.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.