Professional ethics in extreme circumstances: responsibilities of attending physicians and healthcare providers in hunger strikes

Theor Med Bioeth. 2015 Aug;36(4):249-63. doi: 10.1007/s11017-015-9333-9.


Hunger strikes potentially present a serious challenge for attending physicians. Though rare, in certain cases, a conflict can occur between the obligations of beneficence and autonomy. On the one hand, physicians have a duty to preserve life, which entails intervening in a hunger strike before the hunger striker loses his life. On the other hand, physicians' duty to respect autonomy implies that attending physicians have to respect hunger strikers' decisions to refuse nutrition. International medical guidelines state that physicians should follow the strikers' unpressured advance directives. When physicians encounter an unconscious striker, in the absence of reliable advance directives, the guidelines advise physicians to make a decision on the basis of the patient's values, previously expressed wishes, and best interests. I argue that if there are no advance directives and the striker has already lost his competence, the physician has the responsibility to resuscitate the striker. Once the striker regains his decision-making capacity, he should be asked about his decision. If he is determined to continue fasting and refuses treatment, the physician has a moral obligation to respect this decisions and follow his advance directives.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives*
  • Beneficence
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Dissent and Disputes*
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Ethics, Professional
  • Fasting*
  • Health Personnel / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Hunger*
  • Mental Competency
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Physician-Patient Relations / ethics*
  • Resuscitation
  • Treatment Refusal*