Consent and life-sustaining treatments 

There is guidance on whether life-sustaining treatment should be withheld or withdrawn when it is not possible to ask a person for consent.

If a person is being kept alive with supportive treatments  such as ventilation of the lungs  and they have not made an advance decision outlining the care they would refuse to receive, a decision about continuing or stopping treatment will need to be made based on what that person's best interests are believed to be.

To help reach a decision, the healthcare professionals responsible for the person’s care should discuss the issue with the relatives and friends of the person receiving the treatment.

They should consider, among other things:

  • what the person's quality of life will be if treatment is continued
  • how long the person may live if treatment is continued
  • whether there is any chance of the person recovering

Treatment can be withdrawn if there is an agreement that continuing treatment is not in the person's best interests.

If an agreement cannot be reached, or a decision has to be made on whether to withdraw treatment from someone who has been in a state of impaired consciousness for a long time (usually at least 12 months), the case will need to be referred to the courts before any further action can be taken.

It is important to note that there is a difference between withdrawing a person's life support and taking a deliberate action to make them die  for example, by injecting a lethal drug. The latter is illegal.

Page last reviewed: 03/06/2014

Next review due: 03/06/2016