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Am J Law Med. 1979 Winter;4(4):367-96.

Reconciling Quinlan and Saikewicz: decision making for the terminally ill incompetent.


One of the most perplexing problems in the medicolegal field concerns the criteria on which decisions not to treat terminally ill incompetent patients should be made. These decisions traditionally have been made by physicians in hospitals--sometimes with the assistance of the patient's family--on the basis of their perceptions of the patient's "best interests." Recently, two state supreme courts have ruled on this question. The New Jersey Supreme Court, in the Quinlan case, developed a medical prognosis criterion, and permitted the patient's guardian, family, and physicians to apply it with the concurrence of a hospital "ethics committee." The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in the Saikewicz case, adopted, on different facts, the test of "substituted judgment" to be applied by a probate court after an adjudicatory hearing. The two cases have been interpreted by many in the medical profession as representing conflicting viewpoints--one supportive of traditional medical decision making and the other distrustful of it. It is the thesis of this Article that Quinlan and Saikewicz are in fundamental agreement and can be reconciled by the next state supreme court that rules on this question. Both courts enunciate a constitutional right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, based on the right to privacy. They agree that incompetents should be afforded the opportunity to exercise this right, and that certain state interests can overcome it. They agree also that physicians should be permitted to make medical judgments, and that societal judgments belong in the courts. The differences in how the opinions are perceived result from the interplay of several factors: the differences in the facts of the cases; the inarticulate use of the term "ethics committee" by the Quinlan court; the literal interpretation of the role of such a committee by the Saikewicz court; a desire for 100 percent immunity on the part of physicians and hospital administrators in Massachusetts; and advice from their counsel on how such immunity can be guaranteed. It is the author's hope that this Article will help to dispel much of the misinformation surrounding these two cases, and to refocus the debate on how decisions should be made for the terminally ill incompetent patient on the real issues regarding criteria and the decision-making process that remain to be resolved.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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