Nutritional assessment and support of patients have evolved into well-accepted medical practices in the last ten years. Enteral and intravenous (IV) feeding procedures are a routine component of the medical treatment of a large number of patients, both in and out of hospitals. Clinicians today also possess the technical means to nourish a group of patients that previously could not be supported: unconscious patients incapable of taking food orally. With advanced techniques of nutritional support, however, come questions about the propriety of their administration to particular patients. Just as many choices about medical care are influenced by moral beliefs and legal considerations, so are decisions to deliver or withhold nutrition. This article discusses ethical and legal issues raised in these situations and analyzes a case in which the choice of whether to feed the patient depends heavily on the application of two moral principles—beneficence and autonomy.
Feeding unconscious patients can