None of us knows what the future holds. Each of us is unable to predict how long we will remain healthy or in full control of our mental or physical abilities. A heart attack or serious accident can happen without warning. Even routine surgical procedures hold unexpected complications. Thus, making your treatment preferences and medical values known in advance can eliminate much confusion and struggle should you become incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself. Growing evidence shows that those who do not provide clear direction concerning the life-saving measures they would want are more likely to be denied care than to receive treatment. Many court cases have been decided in favor of removing all forms of life support. Therefore, those who do not want to be denied life-saving medical treatment, or even food and fluids, must make their views known in some form of advance directive.
Two common advance directives are Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney. Living Wills focus on the rejection of life saving medical treatment under certain medical conditions. Durable Powers of Attorney authorize a specified person to make decisions concerning the provision or withholding of life-sustaining measures when the signer is incompetent. Though such laws appear to protect patients' rights, they have some serious flaws and are not Pro-Life in their intent.
Problems with a Living Will
Many people who do not want medical technology to prolong their last days will sign a Living Will; however, the terminology used in a Living Will is not specific enough. Webster's Dictionary defines “terminal” as “of or in the final stages of a fatal disease.” However, doctors and hospitals may arbitrarily decide that a patient is terminal when he simply needs rehabilitative care and medicine; sadly, an individual is often deemed terminal simply because he would live with some type of permanent disability, despite the fact that his life could be saved by medical treatment.
For example, one widely used Living Will declaration states, “If I should be in an incurable or irreversible mental or physical condition with no reasonable expectation of recovery, I direct my attending physician to withhold or withdraw treatment that merely prolongs my dying.” There are several problems with this declaration. First, this is an extremely broad statement and, technically, if a patient has a permanent limp or even impaired vision or hearing, or merely loses a finger, he could have an irreversible physical condition. Furthermore, the statement offers no time frame for recovery. Finally, from a legal standpoint, every life-saving medical treatment prolongs dying, including an antibiotic for a sinus infection.
The classification of persistent vegetative state (PVS) is often used to justify withdrawal of nutrition and hydration or other life-saving medical treatments. The family and friends of patients should seriously question this diagnosis. Patients (such as Terri Schiavo) are routinely labeled as PVS due to some incapacity or disability, but an accurate PVS diagnosis is difficult to make since many patients have only some impaired faculties, while other mental and bodily functions are fully operational. Also important to note is the fact that countless patients have emerged from so-called PVS after years and even decades.
A Better Choice
National Right to Life has developed an alternative, life-affirming advance directive called the “Will to Live.” This document presumes that food, fluids, and life-saving medical treatment are to be provided. However, a signer can also specify conditions under which this presumption does not fully apply, such as when death is imminent or when the signer is in the final stages of terminal illness. Suggestions are given for ways to list one's end-of-life directives with precision and detail.
A Will to Live
- Names someone you trust as “health care agent” to safeguard your life when you cannot speak for yourself
- Names backup agents if your first choice cannot serve
- Describes the treatment you do and do not want in order to guide your health care agent and physicians
- Protects your family and health care agent from pressure from health care providers and others by allowing them to prove what you really want
- Relieves the agony of decision making for them by making your wishes clear
- Should be written along with an accompanying medical power of attorney
If you do not want medical technology to prolong your last hours but also do not want to be starved, dehydrated, or allowed to die simply because you have a disability, the medical community will be far more likely to respect your wishes if you sign a properly prepared Will to Live than if you sign a Living Will. As with any legal document, you should consult a Pro-Life lawyer who specializes in health care to ensure that you completely understand the legal implications of your requests.