Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Right to Die Laws

This month's edition of Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine's cover story is Society's Challenge: Finding A Better Way To Die. No, not the happiest of titles, but an important topic nonetheless. William H. Colby provides a re-cap of the current case pending in Georgia, presents a nice history of right to die laws, and offers his thoughts on the need for discussing this delicate subject.

In 1969, as technology was beginning this advance, a lawyer in Chicago had what was then a fairly radical thought: What if a person might want to say “no” to a doctor but can’t speak? The lawyer knew that the law provided a method to dispose of his property when he could no longer speak, when he was dead: a document called a will. He came up with the idea of writing on a piece of paper, “If I’m ever in a coma, I don’t want my life prolonged artificially by machines.” He called the paper a living will and wrote a law review article about the idea, and the societal debate began.
Colby continues by pointing out that 100 years ago society did not possess the ability it has now to prolong life. As a result, a new set of questions arise. Here are his thoughts on talking about this issue:

So how do lawyers advise clients, family members, and friends who ask, “Hey, what should I do about my living will?” My own solution may not be the gold standard, but I’ve thought a lot about the intersection of law and medical technology. Here are the three steps I’ve taken for myself.

  • First, I filled out a legal document, a one-page power of attorney for health care. This document states that my wife (or the listed alternates) will make medical decisions for me if I cannot.
  • Second, I’ve armed my wife to act as my advocate if necessary. We’ve talked about Terri Schiavo, and my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and other situations. My wife knows that I believe the purpose of medical technology is to serve as a bridge to recovery so that I can live life. If it cannot, I want it stopped.
  • Third, I’ve talked with my siblings, my doctor, and other people who might be in the room when decisions are made about me. Health-care workers who deal with the dying all can tell a story about the somewhat-estranged adult child who flies in to “save” mom. To avoid conflict later, talk now.
Colby will be debating the Constitutional, legal, and medical impact of the right to die at this year's Wisconsin State Bar Annual Convention, May 7th, in Milwaukee.

No comments: