Palliative treatments of last resort: choosing the least harmful alternative. University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics Assisted Suicide Consensus Panel

Ann Intern Med. 2000 Mar 21;132(6):488-93. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-132-6-200003210-00011.


Comprehensive palliative care, as exemplified by many state-of-the-art hospice programs, is the standard of care for the dying. Although palliative care is very effective, physicians, nurses, patients, families, and loved ones regularly face clinically, ethically, legally, and morally challenging decisions throughout the dying process. This is especially true when terminally ill patients are ready to die in the face of complex, difficult-to-treat suffering and request assistance from their health care providers. Although physician-assisted suicide has received the most attention as a potential last-resort response, this practice remains illegal in the United States except in Oregon, and even there it is relatively infrequent. More commonly, decisions are made about accelerating opioid therapy for pain, foregoing life-sustaining therapy, voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, and administering terminal sedation in response to unacceptable suffering. The moral distinctions between these practices are critical to some but relatively inconsequential to others. This paper illustrates, through summaries of real clinical cases, how each of these practices might be used in response to patients in particular clinical circumstances, keeping in focus the patient's values as well as those of families, other loved ones, and health care providers. The challenge is to find the least harmful solution to the patient's problem without abandoning patients and their loved ones to unacceptable suffering or to acting in a more deleterious way on their own.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Double Effect Principle
  • Ethics
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary
  • Euthanasia, Passive
  • Family
  • Female
  • Hospice Care
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / therapeutic use
  • Intention
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oregon
  • Palliative Care / methods*
  • Physician's Role
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Suicide, Assisted / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Treatment Refusal
  • United States
  • Withholding Treatment*


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives