Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Heroic Measures Definition:

Artificial or emergency healthcare measures with or without the use of machinery, designed to revive an individual who but for those measures, would in all probability die.

Related Terms: Terminal Condition, Permanent Unconscious Condition, Living Will, Euthanasia, Passive Euthanasia, Extraordinary Life-Sustaining Treatment

Also referred to as excessive measures, extraordinary measures, extraordinary life-sustaining treatment or extraordinary medical procedures.

The legal term is key to end-of-life documents such as living wills in that the patient often asks that when death comes at an elderly age, to let it come peacefully and to not engage in heroic measures or extraordinary life-sustaining treatment to attempt to avoid the coming of death.

Surprisingly, most extant legal or medical dictionaries do not include this medico-legal essential term. While we oblige, we note that even the one that does foray, the populist Stedman's Medical Dictionary (2000), still presents an unsatisfactory definition of heroic measures (under the heading heroic though it is clear that what is intended to be defined, especially in the context of medicine, is heroic measures), as follows:

"Denoting an aggressive, daring procedure in a dangerously ill patient which in itself may endanger the patient but which has a possibility of being successful, whereas lesser action would result in failure (death)."

end of life word cloudIn her thoughtful 1995 article in the Journal of Law & Policy, Bonnie Grover wrote:

"Heroic measures conjures up visions of brilliant and daring doctors, enormously skilled nurses and technicians, high-tech machines, masses of tubing and bottles, and perhaps even a patient lying somewhere amongst it all, presumably struggling just as heroically to live. And that is often exactly how it is."

In Cruzan, these words were used by Justice of the Supreme Court of the Unioted States:

... excessive or heroic measures....

"Current medical practice recommends use of heroic measures if there is a scintilla of a chance that the patient will recover, on the assumption that the measures will be discontinued should the patient improve."


  • Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Deptartment of Health, 497 US 261 (1990)
  • Grover, Bonnie Rae, Family-Based Informed Consent: Reply to Commentators, 17 Law & Pol'y 220 (1995)
  • Pugh, Maureen, (ed.), Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 27th Ed. (Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000), page 398

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If you find an error or omission in Duhaime's Law Dictionary, or if you have suggestion for a legal term, we'd love to hear from you!

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