Moral Issues in Prolongation of Life
Hard Decisions Involved in Extension of Life
Modern medicine's increasing ability to stave off temporarily the inevitable outcome of degenerative disease is raising moral problems that require difficult decisions by doctors and by patients and their families. Among the most poignant of the questions that often have to be answered is whether a patient on the brink of death should be allowed to die then and there, or whether measures should be taken to keep him alive a little longer even when there is no hope of recovery. Ultimately, society itself may be forced to make equally difficult decisions regarding prolongation of life in general, and for periods that may be counted in years rather than merely days or hours.
The latter decisions will involve all kinds of hard questions. What if replacement of vital organs prolongs the life of an individual but at the same time debases the quality of that life? What if a life-saving procedure is so demanding of specialist manpower and so costly that it is available only to the well-to-do? Then there is the question of how many months or years of life are worth the cost of certain treatments in terms not only of money but also of human suffering, of the use of medical manpower, and of the effects on society. Doctors always have had to balance hoped-for benefits against possible harm from particular medical or surgical procedures. Drastic new forms of surgery and the proliferation of new drugs with known and unknown side-effects now have vastly multiplied and complicated the doctors' dilemmas.
Possibility of Dread Consequeces for Mankind
The most fundamental of all moral problems raised by medical science pertain to its present and potentially greater future capacity to prolong life. To live as long as possible has always been man's fondest dream. Until recently, few questioned the doctor's duty to do his utmost to keep death at bay, however sick, injured, or aged the patient. Yet today even those whose work holds promise of adding years to the lifespan question the value of stretching individual life to the last possible breath.