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The Legal Status of Consent Obtained From Families of Adult Patients to Withhold or Withdraw Treatment

Judith Areen, JD
JAMA. 1987;258(2):229-235. doi:10.1001/jama.1987.03400020071034.
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MANY physicians routinely turn to family members to make treatment decisions for patients who are incapable of making decisions for themselves.1 If the patient is a child, the law generally supports reliance on parents as substitute decision makers, although even parental decisions may be overridden in the courts to provide life-saving treatment when it is in the best interests of a child to do so.2,3 If the patient is an adult, by contrast, there is no basis in common law for relying on a family member as a proxy decision maker unless he has been appointed the patient's legal guardian.4-8 A few courts have honored treatment decisions made by parents of mentally retarded adult patients, but these decisions reinforce the general rule by viewing this step as merely an extension of the general authority of parents to consent for minor children.9-11

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