Neuroimaging and the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from patients in vegetative state

01 June 2009

Kahane, G., Skene, L., Wilkinson, D. and Savulescu, J.

Medical Law Review 17, Summer 2009, pp. 245–261 DOI: 10.1093/medlaw/fwp002

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This paper assesses the possible effects on decision making about the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment if fMRI suggests that a patient in VS has some level of consciousness. It focuses on the principles set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (UK) (which has come into force since the case mentioned above),5 the Mental Capacity Act Code of Practice (CoP)6 and the common law. Relevant legal factors include the patient’s wishes expressed in an ‘advance decision to refuse medical treatment’ under the Act, decisions by a donee of a lasting power of attorney appointed under the Act, both of which are binding under the Act if they apply in the circumstances; and, if there is no such provision, the patient’s best interests, taking account of the patient’s wishes inferred from general evidence and the futility of continuing treatment. Current research suggests that neuroimaging will at most establish that some patients diagnosed as being in VS are in fact in a condition that clinicians describe as a ‘minimally conscious state’ (MCS). The patients reported to date have not recovered beyond that state, and may revert to VS. However, applications for fMRI when judicial approval is sought from the Court of Protection to withdraw treatment from patients in VS may delay the process and raise issues for the Court in assessing the relevance of fMRI to the patient’s interests. This paper outlines legal principles relevant to judicial review and discusses underlying philosophical issues, including the limited availability of resources for health care.