Life support: Information, ethics & decision-making

Life and health depend upon the efficient function of the different organs of the body. If vital organs such as the heart, lungs, or kidneys fail, death is imminent. Life support refers to techniques and procedures to artificially replace the function of vital organs. The objective is to buy time for patients so that they can be treated for the underlying cause or are able to recover on their own. Let’s take an example of a person who suffers from acute lung injury and cannot breathe. His lungs can recover if given the proper time and treatment, but the problem is if he can’t breathe he will not survive long enough to recover. This is where life support comes in. A mechanical ventilator, a typical example of life support, can assist or replace a person’s breathing temporarily. The need to provide life support could be urgent and short-term, which forms the basis of CPR and BLS, or prolonged. Chief forms of life support are

  • Mechanical ventilation — assists or replaces a person’s breathing through the use of a machine called a ventilator.
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation — provides blood and oxygen to body tissues, especially the brain, when a person’s heart and/or breathing stop. It involves various basic maneuvers, as well as the use of defibrillators, drugs, and pacemakers at advanced levels.
  • Artificial nutrition and hydration — is essential for life when someone cannot eat or drink. It is administered through a tube that is inserted into the stomach, intestine, or a vein.
  • Dialysis — substitutes for lost kidney function.

As common as life support has become, a debate over ethical issues related to it has become just as common. To understand this debate, we need to look at the pros and cons of life support.

Ethics and pros & cons of life support

The biggest pro of life support is that it sustains life for a longer period of time, allowing for hope and solutions. Some patients pull through and make a full recovery and others don't, but people involved in these situations typically feel that they have a chance. People against life support point to situations where it is clear that there are no chances of recovery and life support only prolongs the dying process. While people who are in support of life support say that it is morally wrong to let someone die, those against it argue that it is morally wrong to keep someone alive without their consent, possibly prolonging their suffering. There are other considerations as well, such as what constitutes a judicious use of medical resources.

When life support techniques were initially introduced, they were seen as lifesaving and most people had no issues. However, today there are a number of landmark cases and situations that have people split over ethical issues, with each side feeling passionate about their moral stance. Ethical panels have been put together and a number of situations arise that cause the debate to continue. As the ethics debate progresses, it is important to stay abreast of the issues and facts about life support.

For healthcare providers, please also take our advanced cardiac life support overview quiz which reviews all the advanced topics.

This page was written by on Apr 26, 2016.
This page was last reviewed and updated by on Jun 30, 2020.