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Moral and religious objections by hospitals to withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment


A patient's right to decide about life-sustaining treatment may conflict with the policies of health care facilities that refuse on the basis or religious or moral convictions to honor certain decisions to forgo treatment. The New York State Task Force on Life and the Law examined the prevalence and nature of facility conscience objections to the refusal of life-sustaining treatment by conducting a survey of New York hospitals. Written questionnaires were distributed to hospitals in New York State. Fifty-eight percent of the New York State hospitals responded. Twenty-nine percent of the respondents indicated that their hospital would object on grounds of conscience either to withholding or to withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in at least one of the twelve hypothetical cases presented. Hospitals were more likely to have “no policy” for withdrawing than for withholding treatment. Only 10% of the hospitals that would object to decisions to forgo treatment on religious or moral grounds had stated the objections in writing. The patient's medical condition and the type of life-sustaining treatment to be withdrawn or withheld are important factors in determining whether a hospital will object on grounds of conscience. The imminence of death appeared more decisive than the degree of debilitation or disability as a factor in the willingness to accept decisions to forgo life-sustaining treatment. Hospitals should establish clear, written policies about their objections to forgoing treatment so that patients and their families can evaluate whether the facility meets their needs.

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Statistical consultation and review was provided by Bruce Levin, PhD, Division of Biostatistics, Columbia University School of Public Health and Jeff Sobal, PhD, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University.

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Cugliari, A.M., Miller, T.E. Moral and religious objections by hospitals to withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. J Community Health 19, 87–100 (1994).

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  • Health Care
  • Medical Condition
  • Health Care Facility
  • Health Promotion
  • Disease Prevention