Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2012

Care versus Treatment at the End of Life for Profoundly Disabled Persons


Jeffrey P. Spike


The Journal of Clinical Ethics 23, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 79-83.


Individuals who are profoundly mentally handicapped do not have the capacity to make their own decisions and also do not have a past record of decisions, from when they had capacity, to guide us in making decisions for them. They represent a difficult group, ethically, for surrogate decision making. Here I propose some guidelines, distinguishing between these patients and patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). As the life span of patients becomes shorter, or their level of consciousness becomes permanently impaired, the presumption for comfort care should become an imperative, and the standard of evidence to justify any invasive intervention should become higher. For members of this population, who have no more ability to refuse treatment than to consent to it, protection of the vulnerable must mean allowing a peaceful death as well as a comfortable life. Reasonable legal safeguards are also proposed to allow improved end-of-life decisions to be made for this population.


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