Force-Feeding: An Ethical Dilemma

What are your thoughts about the practice of force-feeding individuals who refuse to eat?

As nurses, we sometimes find ourselves in situations where we are asked to carry out clinical tasks we believe are ethically unsound. For instance, let’s look at the case of the Guantanamo-Bay prisoners who went on a hunger strike in June 2014. The military nurse assigned to them refused to force-feed the prisoners “because it felt wrong,” he said (

If he were to follow through with the orders to force-feed a suspected criminal, this is how it would likely play out: strapping the prisoner to a chair or bed, pushing a long rubber tube into his nose, down into his stomach, while he twists and flails, fighting to maintain a semblance of dignity.

Nurses choose to become nurses because they want to help those who are vulnerable, physically and emotionally. Nurses approach their patients as a whole entity, the mind and body a seamless system. They listen to their patients talk about their fears and anxieties. They sit with them during the night when they are awake in pain, and administer medications to ease their discomfort. They advocate on the behalf of their patients. The nursing code of ethics is clear about the role of a nurse:

The nurse, in all professional relationships, practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and uniqueness of every individual, unrestricted by considerations of social or economic status, personal attributes, or the nature of health problems (

According to that code, the nurse at Guantanamo acted within his rights. He acted with respect, and preserved the prisoners’ autonomy to make decisions on their own behalf. By refusing to force-feed the prisoners, he was protecting each of their individual rights.

The Guantanamo Bay case is clear-cut, but what about circumstances that are not so black and white, like force-feeding a patient with Anorexia Nervosa?

Withholding feeding, and fluids, is common practice in the terminal stages of an illness. But anorexia is not considered a terminal disease, yet patients do die from poor nutrition. Thus, feeding them is a life saving measure. But, unlike the Guantanamo prisoners, what if anorexic patients are not competent, meaning they cannot express their wishes due to cognitive impairment from severe malnutrition? What if these individuals had already displayed, through aggressive behavior, that they did not want to be fed? Do medical professionals, and family members heed those pre-incompetent wishes? But most people with anorexia have difficulty making decisions, so though they are fearful of gaining weight, and therefore starve themselves, they are not necessarily suicidal. So it’s hard to know the exact wishes of the patient ( forced feeding in anorexia nervosa.pdf).


Other than force-feeding someone as a means to save a life, how else does this benefit a patient who is uncooperative, who has been administered feedings and intravenous nutrition numerous times without lasting success? When does the intended beneficent act venture into an act of great emotional, and physical, harm for the patient ( forced feeding in anorexia nervosa.pdf)?

The ethical questions are endless. But, for nurses, and other medical professionals treating those with anorexia, they are worth examining.


Please note: the information set forth in this post is not representative of the opinion of the author, Melissa Cronin.










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