February 10, 2006

Pulling the Plug on Unwilling Patients

Reason's science correspondant, Ronald Bailey, has an article out in which he discusses the different approaches lefties and righties have when thinking about 'pulling the plug' on dying patients.

More specifically, Bailey asks the tough question in regards to pulling the plug on unwilling patients: should the high cost of living affect one's chances of dying?

Bailey is referring to last month's episode at the Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas, where medical officials disconnected a dying, uninsured cancer patient, Tirhas Habtegiris, from the ventilator that was keeping her alive.

Habtegiris, a 27-year-old abdominal cancer patient, was conscious and did not wish to be disconnected because she hoped that her mother would arrive from Africa for one last visit before she died. The hospital warned the patient and her family that it would keep her on the ventilator for just 10 more days. Ms. Habtegiris died 16 minutes after the ventilator was shut off on December 14, 2005.

As Bailey notes, the hospital was acting according to a law passed in 1999 that allowed it to discontinue "inappropriate" medical care despite the wishes of a patient or the patient's family.

In regards to the episode's fall-out and ensuing culture war, Bailey writes that his impression of the controversy is that "most left-wingers believe that every conscious patient should have as much medical care as they want regardless of the cost to the rest of us. On the other ideological hand, right-wingers seem confused. As the Terri Schiavo case showed many apparently want to offer unlimited medical care to brain-dead patients whose wishes are unknown or contested by family members. Meanwhile their silence in the Habtegiris case might be construed to mean that it's all right to make hard-headed decisions like denying medical care to conscious patients who are indigent."

Bailey goes on to note the fiscal pressures of keeping patients alive and ultimately concludes that "perhaps it was wrong for Baylor to pull the plug in this instance, but it is clear that in the real world of limited medical resources that the "authorities," whether private or governmental, will unavoidably be making similar life and death decisions in the future."

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