The Messiha and Schiavo cases: third-party ethical and legal interventions in futile care disputes

Thomas A. Faunce, Cameron Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


- Relatives may increasingly demand that an incompetent patient’s treatment be continued indefinitely, despite clinical advice that it is technically “futile” (offering no reasonable prospect of return to a meaningful quality of life). Third-party interventions may become a more frequent part of attempts to resolve such disputes where there is no formal advance directive. - In the Messiha case, the Supreme Court of New South Wales upheld clinical judgement regarding the patient’s best interests as most important. - In the Schiavo case in the United States, clinicians’ decisions on futility of treatment had received unwavering judicial support in more than 20 proceedings. - Political differences between the US and Australia make it unlikely clinicians in this country will face Schiavo-type legislative challenges to individual clinical decisions and the judicial rulings upholding them. - Consulting a clinical ethics committee in such scenarios is both legally recommended and clinically warranted as an important device for diffusing tensions between relatives and clinicians, as well as clarifying their respective ethical and legal responsibilities. - In protracted or apparently irresolvable disputes with relatives, applying for a judicial declaration on futility of treatment has become a practical option for intensivists in Australia and should be a recognised part of their training.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)261-263
Number of pages3
JournalMedical Journal of Australia
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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