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Withdrawing treatment from patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness: the wrong answer is what the wrong question begets
  1. Daniel Wei Liang Wang
  1. Fundacao Getulio Vargas Escola de Direito, São Paulo 01310-000, Brazil
  1. Correspondence to Dr Daniel Wei Liang Wang, Fundacao Getulio Vargas Escola de Direito, São Paulo 01310-000, Brazil;{at}


In a recent paper, Charles Foster argued that the epistemic uncertainties surrounding prolonged disorders of consciousness (PDOC) make it impossible to prove that the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment can be in a patient’s best interests and, therefore, the presumption in favour of the maintenance of life cannot be rebutted. In the present response, I argue that, from a legal perspective, Foster has reached the wrong conclusion because he is asking the wrong question. According to the reasoning in two leading cases—Bland and James—the principle of respect for autonomy creates a persuasive presumption against treatment without consent. Therefore, it is the continuation of treatment that requires justification, rather than its withdrawal. This presumption also works as the tiebreaker determining that treatment should stop if there is no persuasive evidence that its continuation is in the best interests of the patient. The presumption in favour of the maintenance of life, on the other hand, should be understood as an evidential presumption on a factual issue that is assumed to be true if unchallenged. However, the uncertainties regarding PDOC actually give reasons for displacing this evidential presumption. Consequently, decision-makers will have to weigh up the pros and cons of treatment having the presumption against treatment without consent as the tiebreaker if the evidence is inconclusive. In conclusion, when the right question is asked, Foster’s argument can be turned on its head and uncertainties surrounding PDOC weigh in to justify the interruption of treatment in the absence of compelling contrary evidence.

  • autonomy
  • end-of-life
  • law
  • consciousness

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  • Contributors I am the sole author of this article.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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