Right to Refuse Treatment

Every competent adult has the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment. This is part of the right of every individual to choose what will be done to their own body, and it applies even when refusing treatment means that the person may die. The right to refuse treatment applies to those who cannot make medical decisions for themselves, as well as to those who can; the only difference is how we protect the rights of people who cannot make decisions for themselves (see VEN’s free handbook Making Medical Decisions for Someone Else).

A person might decide against having a recommended treatment for any number of reasons. Some people for religious reasons do not want to receive blood transfusions. Others decide that they don’t want a recommended treatment because it is too risky or expensive or because even if the treatment works, there is little or no chance it will get them back to a quality of life they could enjoy or accept. Many people do not want life-sustaining treatments like ventilators or feeding tubes if these treatments are only going to prolong the dying process.

Having the right to refuse medical treatment does not mean that a decision to forgo treatment will be accepted without question. Any time a patient turns down a recommended treatment, it means that he or she and the doctor view the situation differently. That’s OK. It is not the patient’s job to simply “go along” with what is being recommended. Rather, the patient’s job is to consider all the options and decide what is best for him or her. What is most important from the medical point of view may not be most important from the patient’s point of view, because goals and values may differ. As long as the patient has been given all the relevant information about his or her treatment options and knows the risks and benefits of each option, including the risks and benefits of turning down treatment, the patient’s wishes come first.