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Artificially Sustaining Life -- Right or Wrong?

written by: Daniel Barros•edited by: Diana Cooper•updated: 9/30/2008

This article examines the life-sustaining techniques that doctors use to keep ill patients alive past the point of normal survival -- culminating in a discussion about the ethics of using these techniques to keep the terminally ill alive.

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    Prolonging Life

    Do you recall the Terri Schaivo case from a few years ago, in which the woman in question (Terri) had a cardiac arrest incident, was comatose for two months, then finally regained consciousness only to remain in a persistent vegetative state? That entire case was fought over sustaining life artificially -- the topic of this article.

    What exactly is artificially sustaining life? According to the American Medical Association, artificially sustaining life is "any treatment that serves to prolong life without reversing the underlying medical condition." These treatments usually revolve around a number of things -- for patients with life-threatening illnesses, it usually involves maintaining the person's life by continuing the treatments for symptoms of the illness. For instance, if a patient who suddenly loses the capability to breathe properly due to their illness is placed on a respirator, such an action would be considered artificially sustaining life. Another example would be a patient who has a particularly acute case of leukemia receiving multiple, scheduled chemotherapy treatments when there isn't a donor or when the situation has gotten so critical that it is beyond salvation from a donor.

    These life-sustaining techniques have got good sides and bad sides. On the one hand, on the slim chance that a terminally ill patient can actually make it back to good health, it provides doctors extra time to cure the patient. On the other hand, prolonging the life of someone who is too ill to come back from the illness can just be a comfort to the patient's family -- not actually stopping the suffering of the patient.

    The debate rages on continuously -- doctors, patients, and even lay people all seem to take one side or the other. For those taking the side of the patient receiving the care indefinitely, removing the artificial life support is seen as euthanasia. For those taking the side of the patient being removed from care, the usual explanation is that prolonging the life of a patient who has no chance of living may be good for a while, but ultimately, it only causes grief to the patient and the family when the patient passes away, as was argued in the Terri Schaivo case.

    Whether you believe that artificial life sustaining treatments are right or are wrong, they are here to stay -- most people agree that patients should receive some of these treatments. If nothing else, it at least allows the patient to say goodbye to their loved ones. The issue that will continue to rage is the question of how long patients should receive it.