Withholding the Heimlich Maneuver: Ethical Considerations


Laura Madigan-McCown


The topic of withholding the Heimlich maneuver as part of a do-not-attempt-to-resuscitate (DNAR) order or an advance directive has not been widely discussed in the clinical ethics literature. This discussion addresses a request by family members to withhold the Heimlich maneuver from a patient in a long-term care facility. A request to forgo the Heimlich maneuver seems to have prima facie categorical similarities to justifications for withholding life-saving treatments such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Further examination reveals significant distinctions. Such distinctions call into question the ethical appropriateness of including the Heimlich maneuver among interventions to be withheld as part of end-of-life care planning, and encourages a broader discussion of an increasingly uncritical deference to autonomy in end-of-life decision making. Most notably, the Heimlich maneuver is the only intervention known to effectively relieve the distressing symptoms of accidental choking. The Heimlich maneuver serves a palliative function and is the standard of care for accidental choking. The Heimlich maneuver should not be conflated with other life-prolonging interventions that may be withheld as part of end-of-life care planning.



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