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Vegetative state, Brain death, Quinlan case, Living will, Congenital encephalopathies


Constitutional Law | Medical Jurisprudence


Decisions to reduce care for patients with severe neurological impairment may raise legal questions. The laws of most states now authorize physicians to stop care for those who have suffered irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain (“brain death”). Where state law is not explicit, it is nevertheless probably lawful to regard brain death as death for legal purposes so long as currently accepted criteria are satisfied. Several courts have ruled that it is lawful to reduce care for patients in vegetative states, but have prescribed differing standards and procedures for implementing such decisions. The issue of whether parents can authorize physicians to reduce care for neurologically impaired children is the focus of current litigation. Implicit in this litigation is the question of how severe neurological impairment must be before parents and physicians may lawfully agree to reduce care. For severely impaired but not vegetative adults, there is some legal authority to justify certain decisions to reduce care. The issue of whether withholding feeding from a severely demented patient with life-threatening medical problems constitutes criminal behavior is now being considered by a state supreme court.

Publication Citation

H. Richard Beresford, "Severe Neurological Impairment: Legal Aspects of Decisions to Reduce Care," 15 Annals of Neurology 409 (1984).