Declaration on Hunger Strikers (Declaration of Malta) (1991, revised 1992)

Declaration on Hunger Strikers (Declaration of Malta)

Adopted by the 43rd World Medical Assembly, Malta, November 1991, and editorially revised at the 44th World Medical Assembly, Marbella, Spain, September 1992


1. The doctor treating hunger strikers is faced with the following conflicting values:

1.1. There is a moral obligation on every human being to respect the sanctity of life. This is especially evident in the case of a doctor, who exercises his skills to save life and also acts in the best interests of his patients (Beneficence).

1.2. It is the duty of the doctor to respect the autonomy which the patient has over his person. A doctor requires informed consent from his patients before applying any of his skills to assist them, unless emergency circumstances have arisen in which case the doctor has to act in what is perceived to be the patient's best interests.

2. This conflict is apparent where a hunger striker who has issued clear instructions not to be resuscitated lapses into a coma and is about to die. Moral obligation urges the doctor to resuscitate the patient even though it is against the patient's wishes. On the other hand, duty urges the doctor to respect the autonomy of the patient.

2.1. Ruling in favour of intervention may undermine the autonomy which the patient has over himself.

2.2. Ruling in favour of non-intervention may result in a doctor having to face the tragedy of an avoidable death.

3. A doctor/patient relationship is said to be in existence whenever a doctor is duty bound, by virtue of his obligation to the patient, to apply his skills to any person, be it in the form of advice or treatment.

This relationship can exist in spite of the fact that the patient might not consent to certain forms of treatment or intervention.

Once the doctor agrees to attend to a hunger striker, that person becomes the doctor's patient. This has all the implication and responsibilities inherent in the doctor/patient relationship, including consent and confidentiality.

4. The ultimate decision on intervention or non-intervention should be left with the individual doctor without the intervention of third parties whose primary interest is not the patient's welfare. However, the doctor should clearly state to the patient whether or not he is able to accept the patient's decision to refuse treatment or, in case of coma, artificial feeding, thereby risking death. If the doctor cannot accept the patient's decision to refuse such aid, the patient would then be entitled to be attended by another physician.


Since the medical profession considers the principle of sanctity of life to be fundamental to its practice, the following practical guidelines are recommended for doctors who treat hunger strikers:


A hunger striker is a mentally competent person who has indicated that he has decided to embark on a hunger strike and has refused to take food and/or fluids for a significant interval.


2.1. A doctor should acquire a detailed medical history of the patient where possible.

2.2. A doctor should carry out a thorough examination of the patient at the onset of the hunger strike.

2.3. Doctors or other health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on the hunger striker to suspend the strike. Treatment or care of the hunger striker must not be conditional upon him suspending his hunger strike.

2.4. The hunger striker must be professionally informed by the doctor of the clinical consequences of a hunger strike, and of any specific danger to his own particular case. An informed decision can only be made on the basis of clear communication. An interpreter should be used if indicated.

2.5. Should a hunger striker wish to have a second medical opinion, this should be granted. Should a hunger striker prefer his treatment to be continued by the second doctor, this should be permitted. In the case of the hunger striker being a prisoner, this should be permitted by arrangement and consultation with the appointed prison doctor.

2.6. Treating infections or advising the patient to increase his oral intake of fluid (or accept intravenous saline solutions) is often acceptable to a hunger striker. A refusal to accept such intervention must not prejudice any other aspect of the patients health care. Any treatment administered to the patient must be with his approval.


The doctor should ascertain on a daily basis whether or not the patient wishes to continue with his hunger strike. The doctor should also ascertain on a daily basis what the patient's wishes are with regard to treatment should he become unable to make an informed decision. These findings must be recorded in the doctors personal medical records and kept confidential.


When the hunger striker has become confused and is therefore unable to make an unimpaired decision or has lapsed into a coma, the doctor shall be free to make the decision for his patient as to further treatment which he considers to be in the best interest of that patient, always taking into account the decision he has arrived at during his preceding care of the patient during his hunger strike, and reaffirming article 4 of the preamble of this Declaration.


Hunger strikers should be protected from coercive participation. This may require removal from the presence of fellow strikers.


The doctor has a responsibility to inform the family of the patient that the patient has embarked on a hunger strike, unless this is specifically prohibited by the patient