Responding to intractable terminal suffering: the role of terminal sedation and voluntary refusal of food and fluids. ACP-ASIM End-of-Life Care Consensus Panel. American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine

Ann Intern Med. 2000 Mar 7;132(5):408-14. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-132-5-200003070-00012.


When provided by a skilled, multidisciplinary team, palliative care is highly effective at addressing the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of dying patients and their families. However, some patients who have witnessed harsh death want reassurance that they can escape if their suffering becomes intolerable. In addition, a small percentage of terminally ill patients receiving comprehensive care reach a point at which their suffering becomes severe and unacceptable despite unrestrained palliative efforts; some of these patients request that death be hastened. This paper presents terminal sedation and voluntary refusal of hydration and nutrition as potential last resorts that can be used to address the needs of such patients. These two practices allow clinicians to address a much wider range of intractable end-of-life suffering than physician-assisted suicide (even if it were legal) and can also provide alternatives for patients, families, and clinicians who are morally opposed to physician-assisted suicide. This paper will define the two practices, distinguish them from more standard palliative care interventions and from physician-assisted suicide, illustrate them with a real clinical scenario, provide potential guidelines and practicalities, and explore their moral and legal status. Although medicine cannot sanitize dying or provide perfect answers for all challenging end-of-life clinical problems, terminal sedation and voluntary refusal of hydration and nutrition substantially increase patients' choices at this inherently challenging time.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Consensus Development Conference
  • Guideline
  • Practice Guideline
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Consensus
  • Double Effect Principle
  • Ethics
  • Fluid Therapy
  • Food
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / administration & dosage*
  • Intention
  • Male
  • Morals
  • Palliative Care / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Palliative Care / methods*
  • Patient Care Team
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Suicide, Assisted
  • Treatment Refusal*
  • United States


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives