Withholding Food and Fluids FAQ

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What is the most common method of mercy killing today?

Withholding food and fluids.

How are food and fluids withheld?

A "prime candidate" for euthanasia is someone who is unable to communicate. (Such as someone in a coma or a persistent vegetative state.) Such people usually need assistance in feeding. This typically takes one of two forms.

One, the person may be hand-fed by a hospital worker or family member. In this case, to terminate nutrition they simply stop the hand-feeding.

Two, the person may be on a feeding tube. This is a narrow tube that is either passed through the nose or surgically implanted through the skin into the stomach. In this case, nutrition is stopped by removing the feeding tube.

How long does it take to die?

The average person can survive for about 40 days without food. An obese person can survive longer, as fat cells will gradually break down and provide sustenance.

Removal of fluids will cause a person to die much more quickly, in three to ten days depending on their health and strength.

What happens to someone when food and fluids are withheld?

The following symptoms typically precede death:

Eventually, of course, bodily organs begin to fail and the person dies.

Aren't there cases where feeding someone would only cause pain and hasten death?

Some. For example, a person may have a cancer obstructing the bowels. But most people who are euthanized by this method have no such problem.

Are these symptoms visible?

Sometimes physicians will take steps to protect family and friends of the patient from seeing unpleasant symptoms. For example, the patient may be given drugs to prevent his body from going into convulsions, as this could be disturbing to those who authorized the euthanasia.

Most of the information in this article is from Life Cycle, #113, Washington DC, 1991.
Posted 6 Sep 2000.

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