In the wake of Terri Schiavo’s imposed death by dehydration and starvation, pro-life leaders are urging people to protect their own lives and the lives of their loved ones in two ways. First, by appointing an agent to make medical decisions for you in the event that you become incapable of expressing your wishes and second, by working against pro-euthanasia laws.
It used to be that there was a presumption in favor of life in the medical profession, but that has given way to a utilitiarianism that places different values on human lives depending on the individual’s supposed “quality of life.” Often based upon financial considerations, hospitals throughout the country are establishing what are called “futile care” or “inappropriate care” protocols in which patients can be refused treatment even if they or their families want it. The danger now is not over-treatment, but under-treatment. Also, a federal law enacted in 1990 requires that all health care facilities which receive Medicaid or Medicare funds give every adult patient the “opportunity” to sign a Living Will upon admission.
The Dangers of Living Wills
Beware of Living Wills, even if they are promoted within your church. A Living Will can be dangerous because the focus is on the refusal of treatment. You might change your mind about what is acceptable treatment once you have been injured or become sick. For example, a person might write in a Living Will that he never wants to be put on a respirator. However, the temporary use of a respirator could save your life and help you recover if you are injured in a car accident. But if you are comatose immediately after the accident and a doctor adheres to the instructions in your Living Will, you may never get that chance to recover. In addition, medical technology changes so rapidly that Living Wills can become out of date very quickly.
The Pro-Life Alternative
Pro-life advance directives are available. These are also written documents, but the crucial difference is that you name a person to make medical decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. This person would be a trusted family member or friend who will be able to make good decisions based on your actual condition and the current state of medical technology. Of course, it is important to choose someone who understands your values and wishes and who is prepared to fight against hospitals and medical personnel who may feel that your life is not worth saving.
Obtaining an Advance Directive
There are different pro-life advance directives available. In contrast to most Living Wills, all pro-life alternatives state that food and water are to be provided (by feeding tube if necessary) unless death is imminent and your body is unable to assimilate nourishment at thar point.
There is nothing to fear about a feeding tube; it is a simple device that has been in use for more than one hundred years. Liquid food, such as Ensure, is common and inexpensive. No one wants a feeding tube, just as no one wants dentures, but if you are hungry, you would probably be grateful to accept aid in receiving food. Sometimes a feeding tube is inserted, not because the patient can not swallow, but because it is more convenient for the caregivers than feeding by mouth.
Unfortunately, the laws of all but ten states may allow doctors and hospitals to disregard advance directives when they call for treatment, food or fluids, according to a report issued by the National Right to Life Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics on April 15, 2005. Dorothy Timbs, J.D., Legislative Counsel for the Powell Center, said “It is important to fill out an advance directive like the Will to Live available on our web site, to make your wish not to be denied food or treatment clear. However, it is equally important to work for legal reform so that your choice for life will be honored.” The National Right to Life Committee has made available a report in PDF format on their web site [nrlc.org/euthanasia/willtolive/ statestatutereport.pdf] listing state laws’ varying protections of patient directives.
[This article was originally published under the same title in Pro-Life Action News, Vol. 25, No. 3 (June 2005), a newsletter published by Pro-Life Action Ministries in Minnesota. The article has been reprinted here with permission. To read more about the excellent work of PLAM, please see their web site at plam.org.]