In this post, Andrew McGee (Queensland University of Technology) and Drew Carter (University of Adelaide) discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the moral difference between withdrawing and withholding medical interventions.
Some health ethics writers and clinical guidelines claim that withdrawing and withholding medical treatment are morally equivalent: if one is permissible or impermissible, so too the other.
Call this view Equivalence. It is heir of a related view that has held sway in ethical and legal debate for decades, in support of the withdrawal of treatment that is no longer beneficial. The thinking was that if treatment no longer benefits a patient, then whether it is withheld or withdrawn does not matter – so there is no morally relevant difference between the two.
Equivalence goes beyond this. It applies to beneficial treatment, where two patients compete for one resource. The reasoning is: To save as many lives as possible, we would have no qualms about withholding a beneficial treatment from one person to give it to another who can benefit more. We should therefore have no qualms about withdrawing it either. In a recent article, we argue that Equivalence is false.