The theoretical and practical arguments against the unilateral withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment during crisis standards of care: Does the Knobe effect apply to unilateral withdrawal?


Some argue that it is ethically justifiable to unilaterally withdraw life-sustaining treatment during crisis standards of care without the patient's consent in order to reallocate it to another patient with a better chance of survival. This justification has been supported by two lines of argument: the equivalence thesis and the rule of the double effect. We argue that there are theoretical issues with the first and practical ones with the second, as supported by an experiment aimed at exploring whether the Knobe effect, which affects the folk concept of intention, applies to situations of unilateral withdrawal. Fifty-two critical care physicians from one university were asked to ascribe intention in two hypothetical scenarios A and B in which outcomes differ-the patient from whom life-sustaining treatment is withdrawn dies in scenario A but survives in scenario B-but the intention, to save the other patient regardless of the outcome of the other, is the same. The survey was administered via a web-based survey and all answers were anonymous. A paired proportion test was used to compare responses to both questions. All 52 surveyed individuals responded in scenario A and 30 (57.7%) ascribed intention when outcomes were unfavorable, whereas 50 responded in scenario B and 8 (16%) ascribed intention when outcomes were favorable, a difference that was statistically significant (p