Medical Ethics in Life and Death

February 24, 1984

Report Outline
Origins of Public Concern
Ethical Considerations
Medicine and the Law
Impact on Public Policy
Special Focus

Origins of Public Concern

Cases Involving Life-Saving Decisions

Life And Death once had simple definitions. Life began with a baby's first breath; death with a person's last. No longer. Medical science has altered our understanding of life's bounds. Life can be traced—even photographed—from the moment a human egg is fertilized. Death can be postponed by machines that induce breathing and circulation long after the brain has lost its capacity to orchestrate bodily functions. But not all that is now medically possible is ethically desirable or legally permissible.

Medical technology has given society the means to save people that otherwise might have died; to prolong—even restore—life to victims of accidents and disease. But in so doing, it has raised difficult questions about when such treatment should be abandoned and the patient allowed to die: Who should make the decisions? Using what standards?

It is generally agreed that decisions to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment should be made in the best interests of the patient. Most often the choice goes undisputed. Few would argue with a family that decided against open heart surgery for a soon-to-die cancer patient. It is the case that presents ambiguous or unclear indicators about what is best for the patient which prompts medical, legal and ethical debate. Choices in such cases are rendered even more difficult because what may be ethical is not always legal. Several recent cases illustrate the questions that patients, families, the medical profession, the courts and society must consider:

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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May 13, 2005  Right to Die
Sep. 05, 1997  Caring for the Dying
May 05, 1995  Assisted Suicide Controversy
Feb. 21, 1992  Assisted Suicide
Sep. 28, 1990  Right to Die: Medical, Legal & Moral Issues
Feb. 24, 1984  Medical Ethics in Life and Death
Jun. 21, 1972  Medical Ethics
Medical Profession and Personnel
Right to Die