Ethical and Societal Dilemmas in Modern Medicine

Should We Provide Life-Sustaining Treatments to Patients with Permanent Loss of Cognitive Capacities?

Ofra G. Golan and Esther-Lee Marcus


A very troubling issue for health care systems today is that of life-sustaining treatment for patients who have permanently lost their cognitive capacities. These include patients in persistent vegetative state (PVS), or minimally conscious state (MCS), as well as a growing population of patients at the very end stage of dementia. These patients are totally dependent on life-sustaining treatments and are, actually, kept alive “artificially.” This phenomenon raises doubts as to the ethics of sustaining the life of patients who have lost their consciousness and cognitive capacities, and whether there is a moral obligation to do so. The problem is that the main facts concerning the experiences and well-being of such patients and their wishes are unknown. Hence the framework of the four principles—beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice—is not applicable in these cases; therefore we examined solidarity as another moral value to which we may resort in dealing with this dilemma. This article shows that the source of the dilemma is the social attitudes towards loss of cognitive capacities, and the perception of this state as loss of personhood. Consequently, it is suggested that the principle of solidarity—which both sets an obligation to care for the worst-off, and can be used to identify obligations that appeal to an ethos of behavior—can serve as a guiding principle for resolving the dilemma. The value of solidarity can lead society to care for these patients and not deny them basic care and life-sustaining treatment when appropriate.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2012;3(3):e0018