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This paper attempts to provide a descriptive theoretical overview of the medical futility debate. I will first argue that quantitative data cannot alone resolve the medical futility debate. I will then examine two aspects of medical futility, which I call the prospective and immediate, respectively. The first involves making prospective factual and value judgments about the efficacy of proposed medical interventions, while the latter involves making value judgments about ongoing medical conditions where the clinical data are clear. At stake is the nature and scope of individual rights. Thus, I maintain there is an undeveloped aspect to the medical futility debate and, briefly, analyze two political perspectives which give rise to different understandings of medical futility. The view that I will defend is that only a system with defined collective goals can accommodate a normative concept of medical futility. These larger questions are the value options which, if unaddressed, may be settled by default of economic grounds.

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