History of the Right-to-Die movement and the Living Will

Compiled by Derek Humphry
Updated March 9 2003

· 1906 - First euthanasia bill drafted in Ohio. It does not succeed.

· 1935 - World's first euthanasia society is founded in London, England.

· 1938 - The Euthanasia Society of America is founded by the Rev. Charles Potter in New York.

· 1954 - Joseph Fletcher publishes Morals and Medicine, predicting the coming controversy over the right to die.

· 1957 - Pope Pius XII issues Catholic doctrine distinguishing ordinary from extraordinary means for sustaining life.

· 1958 - Oxford law professor Glanville Williams publishes The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law, proposing that voluntary euthanasia be allowed for competent, terminally ill patients.

· 1958 - Lael Wertenbaker publishes Death of a Man describing how she helped her husband commit suicide. It is the first book of its genre.

· 1967 - The first living will is written by attorney Louis Kutner and his arguments for it appear in the Indiana Law Journal.

· 1967 - A right-to-die bill is introduced by Dr. Walter W. Sackett in Florida's legislature. It arouses extensive debate but is unsuccessful.

· l968 - Doctors at Harvard Medical School propose redefining death to include brain death as well as heart-lung death. Gradually this definition is accepted.

· 1969 - Voluntary euthanasia bill introduced in the Idaho legislation. It fails.

· 1969 - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross publishes On Death and Dying, opening discussion of the once-taboo subject of death.

· 1970 - The Euthanasia Society (US) finishes distributing 60,000 living wills.

· 1973 - American Hospital Association creates Patient Bill of Rights, which includes informed consent and the right to refuse treatment.

· 1973 - Dr. Gertruida Postma, who gave her dying mother a lethal injection, receives light sentence in the Netherlands. The furore launches the euthanasia movement in that country (NVVE).

· 1974 - The Euthanasia Society in New York renamed the Society for the Right to Die. The first hospice American hospice opens in New Haven, Conn.

· 1975 - Deeply religious Van Dusens commit suicide. Henry P. Van Dusen, 77, and his wife, Elizabeth, 80, leaders of the Christian ecumenical movement, choose to die rather than suffer from disabling conditions. Their note reads, "We still feel this is the best way and the right way to go."

· 1975 - Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (NVVE) launches its Members' Aid Service to give advice to the dying. Receives 25 requests for aid in the first year.

· 1976 - The New Jersey Supreme Court allows Karen Ann Quinlan's parents to disconnect the respirator that keeps her alive, saying it is affirming the choice Karen herself would have made. Quinlan case becomes a legal landmark. But she lives on for another eight years.

· 1976 - California Natural Death Act is passed. The nation's first aid in dying statute gives legal standing to living wills and protects physicians from being sued for failing to treat incurable illnesses.

· 1976 - Ten more U.S. states pass natural death laws.

· 1976 - First international meeting of right-to-die groups. Six are represented inTokyo.

· 1978 - Doris Portwood publishes landmark book Commonsense Suicide: The Final Right. It argues that old people in poor health might justifiably kill themselves.

· 1978 - Whose Life Is It Anyway?, a play about a young artist who becomes quadriplegic, is staged in London and on Broadway, raising disturbing questions about the right to die. A film version appears in 1982. Jean's Way is published in England by Derek Humphry, describing how he helped his terminally ill wife to die.

· 1979 - Artist Jo Roman, dying of cancer, commits suicide at a much-publicized gathering of friends that is later broadcast on public television and reported by the New York Times.

· 1979 - Two right-to-die organizations split. The Society for the Right to Die separates from Concern for Dying, a companion group that grew out of the Society's Euthanasia Education Council.

· 1980 - Advice column Dear Abby publishes a letter from a reader agonizing over a dying loved one, generating 30,000 advance care directive requests at the Society for the Right to Die.

· 1980 - Pope John Paul II issues Declaration in Euthanasia opposing mercy killing but permits the greater use of painkillers to ease pain and the right to refuse extraordinary means for sustaining life.

· 1980 -Hemlock Society is founded in Santa Monica, California, by Derek Humphry. It advocates legal change and distributes how to die information. This launches the campaign for assisted dying in America. Hemlock's national membership will grow to 50,000 within a decade. Right to die societies also formed the same year in Germany and Canada.

· 1980 - World Federation of Right to Die Societies is formed in Oxford, England. It comprises 27 groups from 18 nations.

· 1981 -Hemlock publishes how-to suicide guide, Let Me Die Before I Wake, the first such book on open sale

· 1983 - Famous author (Darkness at Noon etc) Arthur Koestler, terminally ill, commits suicide a year after publishing his reasons. His wife Cynthia, not dying, choses to commit suicide with him.

· 1983 - Elizabeth Bouvia, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy, sues a California hospital to let her die of self-starvation while receiving comfort care. She loses, and files an appeal.

· 1984 - Advance care directives become recognized in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

· 1984 - The Netherlands Supreme Court approves voluntary euthanasia under certain conditions.

· 1985 - Karen Ann Quinlan dies.

· 1985 - Betty Rollin publishes Last Wish, her account of helping her mother to die after a long losing battle with breast cancer. The book becomes a bestseller.

· 1986 - Roswell Gilbert, 76, sentenced in Florida to 25 years without parole for shooting his terminally ill wife. Granted clemency five years later.

· 1986 - Elizabeth Bouvia is granted the right to refuse force feeding by an appeals court. But she declines to take advantage of the permission and is still alive in l998.

· 1986 - Americans Against Human Suffering is founded in California, launching a campaign for what will become the 1992 California Death with Dignity Act.

· 1987 - The California State Bar Conference passes Resolution #3-4-87 to become the first public body to approve of physician aid in dying.

· 1988 - Journal of the American Medical Association prints It's Over, Debbie, an unsigned article describing a resident doctor giving a lethal injection to a woman dying of ovarian cancer. The public prosecutor makes an intense, unsuccessful effort to identify the physician in the article.

· 1988 - Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations passes a national resolution favoring aid in dying for the terminally ill, becoming the first religious body to affirm a right to die.

· 1990 - Washington Initiative (119) is filed, the first state voter referendum on the issue of voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

· 1990 - American Medical Association adopts the formal position that with informed consent, a physician can withhold or withdraw treatment from a patient who is close to death, and may also discontinue life support of a patient in a permanent coma.

· 1990 - Dr. Jack Kevorkian assists in the death of Janet Adkins, a middle-aged woman with Alzheimer's disease. Kevorkian subsequently flounts the Michigan legislature's attempts to stop him from assisting in additional suicides.

· 1990 - Supreme Court decides the Cruzan case, its first aid in dying ruling. The decision recognizes that competent adults have a constitutionally protected liberty interest that includes a right to refuse medical treatment; the court also allows a state to impose procedural safeguards to protect its interests.

· 1990 - Hemlock of Oregon introduces the Death With Dignity Act into the Oregon legislature, but it fails to get out of committee.

· 1990 - Congress passes the Patient Self-Determination Act, requiring hospitals that receive federal funds to tell patients that they have a right to demand or refuse treatment. It takes effect the next year.

· 1991 - Dr. Timothy Quill writes about "Diane" in the New England Journal of Medicine, describing his provision of lethal drugs to a leukemia patient who chose to die at home by her own hand rather than undergo therapy that offered a 25 percent chance of survival. ·
· 1991 - Nationwide Gallup poll finds that 75 percent of Americans approve of living wills.

· 1991 - Derek Humphry publishes Final Exit, a how-to book on self-deliverance. Within 18 months the book sells 540,000 copies and tops USA bestseller lists. It is translated into twelve other languages. Total sales exceed one million.

· 1991 - Choice in Dying is formed by the merger of two aid in dying organizations, Concern for Dying and Society for the Right to Die. The new organization becomes known for defending patients' rights and promoting living wills, and will grow in five years to 50,000 members.

· 1991 - Washington State voters reject Ballot Initiative 119, which would have legalized physician-aided suicide and aid in dying. The vote is 54-46 percent.

· 1992 - Americans for Death with Dignity, formerly Americans Against Human Suffering, places the California Death with Dignity Act on the state ballot as Proposition 161.

· 1992 - Health care becomes a major political issue as presidential candidates debate questions of access, rising costs, and the possible need for some form of rationing.

· 1992 - California voters defeat Proposition 161, which would have allowed physicians to hasten death by actively administering or prescribing medications for self administration by suffering, terminally ill patients. The vote is 54-46 percent.

· 1993 - Advance directive laws are achieved in 48 states, with passage imminent in the remaining two.

· 1993 - Compassion in Dying is founded in Washington state to counsel the terminally ill and provide information about how to die without suffering and "with personal assistance, if necessary, to intentionally hasten death." The group sponsors suits challenging state laws against assisted suicide.

· 1993 - President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly support advance directives and sign living wills, acting after the death of Hugh Rodham, Hillary's father.

· 1993 - Oregon Right to Die, a political action committee, is founded to write and subsequently to pass the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

· 1994 - The Death with Dignity Education Center is founded in California as a national nonprofit organization that works to promote a comprehensive, humane, responsive system of care for terminally ill patients.

· 1994 - More presidential living wills are revealed. After the deaths of former President Richard Nixon and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it is reported that both had signed advance directives.

· 1994 - The California Bar approves physician-assisted suicide. With an 85 percent majority and no active opposition, the Conference of Delegates says physicians should be allowed to prescribe medication to terminally ill, competent adults self-administration in order to hasten death.

· 1994 - All states and the District of Columbia now recognize some type of advance directive procedure.

· 1994 - Washington State's anti-suicide law is overturned. In Compassion v. Washington, a district court finds that a law outlawing assisted suicide violates the 14th Amendment. Judge Rothstein writes, "The court does not believe that a distinction can be drawn between refusing life-sustaining medical treatment and physician-assisted suicide by an uncoerced, mentally competent, terminally ill adult."

· 1994 - In New York State, the lawsuit Quill et al v. Koppell is filed to challenge the New York law prohibiting assisted suicide. Quill loses, and files an appeal.

· 1994 - Oregon voters approve Measure 16, a Death With Dignity Act ballot initiative that would permit terminally ill patients, under proper safeguards, to obtain a physician's prescription to end life in a humane and dignified manner. The vote is 51-49 percent.

· 1994 - U.S. District Court Judge Hogan issues a temporary restraining order against Oregon's Measure 16, following that with an injunction barring the state from putting the law into effect.

· 1995 - Oregon Death with Dignity Legal Defense and Education Center is founded. Its purpose is to defend Ballot Measure 16 legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

· 1995 - Washington State's Compassion ruling is overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, reinstating the anti suicide law.

· 1995 - U.S. District Judge Hogan rules that Oregon Measure 16, the Death with Dignity Act, is unconstitutional on grounds it violates the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. His ruling is immediately appealed.

· 1995 - Surveys find that doctors disregard most advance directives. Journal of the American Medical Association reports that physicians were unaware of the directives of three-quarters of all elderly patients admitted to a New York hospital; the California Medical Review reports that three-quarters of all advance directives were missing from Medicare records in that state.

· 1995 - Oral arguments in the appeal of Quill v. Vacco contest the legality of New York's anti-suicide law before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

· 1995 - Compassion case is reconsidered in Washington state by a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel of eleven judges, the largest panel ever to hear a physician-assisted suicide case.

· 1996 - The Northern Territory of Australia passes voluntary euthanasia law. Nine months later the Federal Parliament quashes it.

· 1996 - The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the Compassion finding in Washington state, holding that "a liberty interest exists in the choice of how and when one dies, and that the provision of the Washington statute banning assisted suicide, as applied to competent, terminally ill adults who wish to hasten their deaths by obtaining medication prescribed by their doctors, violates the Due Process Clause." The ruling affects laws of nine western states. It is stayed pending appeal.

· 1996 - A Michigan jury acquits Dr. Kevorkian of violating a state law banning assisted suicides.

· 1996 - The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the Quill finding, ruling that "The New York statutes criminalizing assisted suicide violate the Equal Protection Clause because, to the extent that they prohibit a physician from prescribing medications to be self-administered by a mentally competent, terminally ill person in the final stages of his terminal illness, they are not rationally related to any legitimate state interest." The ruling affects laws in New York, Vermont and Connecticut. (On 17 April the court stays enforcement of its ruling for 30 days pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

· 1996 - The U.S. Supreme Court announces that it will review both cases sponsored by Compassion in Dying, known now as Washington v. Glucksberg and Quill v. Vacco.

· 1997 - Oral arguments set for the New York and Washington cases on physician assisted dying. The cases were heard in tandem on 8 January but not combined. A ruling is expected in June.

· 1997 - ACLU attorney Robert Rivas files an amended complaint challenging the 128 year-old Florida law banning assisted suicide. Charles E. Hall, who has AIDS asks court permission for a doctor to assist his suicide. The court refuses.

· 1997 - On 13 May the Oregon House of Representatives votes 32-26 to return Measure 16 to the voters in November for repeal (H.B. 2954). On 10 June the Senate votes 20-10 to pass H.B. 2954 and return Measure 16 to the voters for repeal. No such attempt to overturn the will of the voters has been tried in Oregon since 1908.

· 1997 - On 26 June the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the decisions of the Ninth and Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington v. Glucksberg and Quill v. Vacco, upholding as constitutional state statutes which bar assisted suicide. However, the court also validated the concept of "double effect," openly acknowledging that death hastened by increased palliative measures does not constitute prohibited conduct so long as the intent is the relief of pain and suffering. The majority opinion ended with the pronouncement that "Throughout the nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society."

· 1997 - Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (NVVE) reports its membership now more than 90,000, of whom 900 made requests for help in dying to its Members' Aid Service.

· 1997 - Britain's Parliament rejects by 234 votes to 89 the seventh attempt in 60 years to change the law on assisted suicide despite polls showing 82 percent of British people want reform.

· 1997 - On 4 November the people of Oregon vote by a margin of 60-40 percent against Measure 51, which would have repealed the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, l994. The law officially takes effect (ORS 127.800-897) on 27 October l997 when court challenges disposed of.

· 1998 - Dr. Kevorkian assists the suicide of his 92nd patient in eight years. His home state, Michigan, passes new law making such actions a crime. It took effect September, 1 1998, but Kevorkian carries on helping people to die -- 120 by November.

· 1998 - Oregon Health Services Commission decides that payment for physician-assisted suicide can come from state funds under the Oregon Health Plan so that the poor will not be discriminated against.

· 1998 - 16 people die by making use of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, receiving physician-assisted suicide in its first full year of implementation.

· 1998 - Measure B on the Michigan ballot to legalize physician-assisted suicide defeated by 70 - 30%.

· 1999 - Dr. Kevorkian sentenced to 10-25 years imprisonment for the 2nd degree murder of Thomas Youk after showing video of death by injection on national television.

· 1999 - 26 people die by physician-assisted suicide in the second full year of the Oregon PAS law.

· 2000 - World Euthanasia Conference, Boston

· 2000 - Citizens' Ballot Initiative in Maine to approve the lawfulness of Physician- Assisted Suicide was narrowly defeated 51-49 percent.

· 2001 - Kevorkian's appeal decision reached after 2 years 7 months. Judges reject it.

· 2001 - MS victim Diane Pretty asks UK court to allow her husband to help her commit suicide. The London High Court, the House of Lords, and the Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, all say no. She dies in hospice a few weeks later.

· 2002 - Dutch law allowing voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide takes effect on 1 February. For 20 years previously it had been permitted under guidelines.

· 2002 - Belgium passes similar law to the Dutch, allowing both voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

· 2003 - US Attorney-General Ashcroft asks the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal to reverse the finding of a lower court judge that the Oregon Death With Dignity Act l994 does not contravene federal powers. 129 dying people have used this law over the last five years to obtain legal physician-assisted suicide. The losers of this appeal will almost certainly ask the US Supreme Court to rule.

SOURCE: Euthanasia Research & Guidance Organization (ERGO)
Special thanks to Derek Humphry for allowing me to reproduce this for our site.
From Michele Baskin-Jones,
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Chapter 111


American Life League

We have 'Baby Does' now. It won't be long before we have 'Granny Does.'

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Anti-Life Philosophy.

It is every person's right to control his or her own body. A natural and logical extension of this "right to choose" is the right to determine how one will be treated if one is incapable of voicing an opinion regarding one's own medical care.

Most people do not want to go on living as hopeless vegetables after they lose the capacity to make decisions. This prospect fills us with dread and is an unconscionable invasion of privacy. The "Living Will" fills the vital need of allowing individuals to specify what medical care is and is not desired after he or she is rendered incompetent.

What is a "Living Will?"

"Living Will" legislation goes by many names. It may be called "Death With Dignity," "Rights of the Terminally Ill," or "Patient's Rights" legislation. All of these names emphasize understanding and compassion.

The "Living Will" is defined by pro-euthanasia groups as a document by which a person can assert, in writing, a desire not to be kept alive by life-sustaining medical equipment and procedures when his or her condition has been diagnosed as terminal, or under certain other well-defined conditions.

Most "Living Wills" signed in this country today are form-type wills, but, as with any legal document, they can be custom-tailored to meet any actual or perceived need or wish, including;

• requesting or refusing artificial feeding tubes, antibiotics, dialysis,
respirators, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and other specified treatments;
• requesting pain medication;
• stating the desired place of death, including at home;
• designating a proxy to make health care decisions when the individual is
incapable of doing so; and
• requesting designation as an organ donor.

Is A "Living Will" Necessary?

Some persons believe that the "Living Will" is necessary in order to clarify a patient's legitimate right to refuse extraordinary medical treatment. However, this is a right that all patients already possess. Public support for such pro-"Living Will" legislation is primarily due to the fact that a very small minority of doctors resist even morally appropriate requests for the withdrawal of treatment.

"Living Wills" are generally unnecessary under present law, because there is nothing to prevent doctors from withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining medical treatment when all reasonable hope for recovery is gone. Patients already have the right to give their doctors and family instructions on how they want to be treated in the event of a terminal illness or grave injury, particularly when they are in no condition to decide for themselves.

Who Backs the "Living Wills?"

Most "Living Will" proposals have been written and promoted by the following organizations. The membership of this list alone should sound alarm bells for those dedicated to protecting human life;

• The Society for the Right to Die, which shed its non-progressive title
"Euthanasia Society of America" in 1975;
• Americans Against Human Suffering (AAHS);
• Concern for Dying (formerly the Euthanasia Educational Council), which
split from the Society for the Right to Die in 1979;
• the National Hemlock Society, which lobbies for direct euthanasia, and
which publishes a "cookbook," or "how-to" manual on suicide; and, not
• the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In fact, the original concept of the "Living Will" originated with these pro-euthanasia groups. The "Living Will" is seen as a publicly-acceptable way to introduce the agenda of legalized active euthanasia, suicide, and assisted suicide.

Notice that none of these organizations uses the term "euthanasia" in their titles (they prefer the euphemisms "right to die," "death with dignity," and "mercy killing"). Note also that all of these groups operate primarily in California, Arizona, and Florida, all states with large elderly and retired populations.

Just the First Step ...

The Three-Step Strategy.

Pro-euthanasia activists consider the "Living Will" just the first step on the road to active, involuntary euthanasia of those considered to be useless to society. They know full well that if they can get society to make this first critical step, all of the other steps no matter how many there are will be much easier.

Subsequent steps are always easier. The first step down the slippery slope is the hardest, but, once a society's downward plunge gathers momentum, it will find itself moving so quickly that it is difficult to stop or turn back.

As Derek Humphry, the Director of the Hemlock Society, said in a December 18, 1986 interview; "We have to go stage by stage, with the living will, with the power of attorney, with the withdrawal of this; we have to go stage by stage. Your side would call that the 'slippery slope'... We would say, proceed with caution; learning as we go along how to handle this very sensitive situation."[1] The headline of an August 16, 1985 USA Today article which was a compendium of interviews with pro-euthanasiasts said it all: "Living Wills 1st Step, Euthanasia Group Says."

The "Living Will" is only the first of three major steps in the pro-euthanasia strategy. The second is passive euthanasia (assisted suicide). In such an action, the doctor prescribes a lethal dose of medication at the request of the patient, or he discusses how a hypothetical patient, using hypothetical means (of course) can kill himself.

Dr. Jack ("The Dripper") Kevorkian is now making this second step a reality. As of March 1993, the retired Michigan pathologist had assisted in the suicides of fifteen people, and had made it perfectly clear that he wanted to set up a chain of euthanasia clinics across the country, as described in Chapter 109, "History of Euthanasia."

The third and final step in the strategy is direct euthanasia, where the patient or his "attorney-in-fact" requests that the patient be injected with a combination of barbiturates and paralyzing drugs. This type of direct killing was proposed in the "Oregon Death With Dignity Act" and Washington State's Initiative 119, which failed by popular vote in November of 1990.

Example Expansion.

This three-step strategy for direct euthanasia was demonstrated vividly after California passed its "Natural Death Act" in 1983. Within just the first year after its passage, seven amendments were made to this Act, each of which substantially expanded its original intent. The Hemlock Society supported a proposed bill that would have allowed doctors to give their patients lethal injections in other words, direct euthanasia.

The Future of the "Living Will."

As with the other aspects of euthanasia, we need only to look to Holland for a vivid picture of the future of the "Living Will" and its natural successors.

Dutch cardiologist Dr. Richard Fenigsen recently described the ultimate evolution of the "Living Will" in Holland.

More than 40 percent of all Dutch physicians have admitted to killing one or more of their patients against their wills. In light of this fact, most Dutch, especially the elderly, are extremely afraid of doctors and, even more so, of hospitals.[2]

The number of nursing homes in Holland has decreased by more than 80 percent in the last 20 years, and the life expectancy of the few elderly who remain in such homes is becoming shorter all the time. In some cases, the life span of healthy elderly who enter Dutch nursing homes can be measures in hours.

Many Dutch citizens, therefore, are now carrying a defensive document entitled the "Declaration of a Will To Live," which states that they do not want to be euthanized without their knowledge. This document was originated by the appropriately-named Sanctuary Society.

Predictably, these Declarations carry very little weight with the same doctors who introduced the equivalent of the so-called "Living Wills" in Holland. As always, what matters is not what the patient desires, but what the physicians see as beneficial to the medical profession and to society at large.

As Dr. Fenigsen noted, "The burden of justifying his existence is now placed upon the patient."[2]

What Are the Dangers of the "Living Will?"

No Reliable Oracles.

The primary danger of the "Living Will" lies in the fact that it is usually signed long before the person knows when he or she will be incapacitated or what the circumstances of that incapacitation will be. This means that the specific treatment (or lack thereof) for the future condition cannot be specified.

Presumably, one can revoke a "Living Will" at any time by making a verbal or written statement to a physician, nurse, or other health care worker. This, of course, is contingent upon the individual's condition at the time he wishes to change his mind. If he should experience a change of heart after he is incapable of communicating, he is out of luck. Also, if the presiding health care professional feels that the patient's wishes are the result of trauma or some other cause, they can be totally disregarded.

If a "Living Will" has been signed, it is probably legally binding under the current conditions in the American judicial system. It would therefore be difficult or impossible for a family doctor to make the decisions which could be in the patient's best interests.

This set of conditions makes it virtually impossible for the signer of a "Living Will" to define precisely that treatment that he wants or does not want.

Specific Problems.

An example "Living Will" is shown below in bold type. The [bracketed and italicized sections] highly the extreme vagueness of the so-called "Model Living Will" that is being proposed for general usage in every state by pro-euthanasia groups.


If I should have an incurable or irreversible condition [does this include asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy, heart conditions, AIDS?] that will cause my death within a relatively short time, [this could be hours or weeks or even months] and if I am no longer able to make decisions [what if the person is affected by medication or allergies? What if he is temporarily disoriented or depressed? Or senile?] regarding any medical treatment, I direct my attending physician [family doctor? Friend? Attorney-in-fact? What about a doctor in a strange city who knows nothing about you?] to withhold or withdraw treatment [what about respirators or chemotherapy? How about insulin, nitroglycerin, blood pressure medicine, oxygen, antibiotics, even food and water?] that only prolongs the dying process and is not necessary to my comfort or to alleviate pain [if you are transitorily comatose or drugged, what degree of pain is being specified here?].

Reference. "Living Wills." Pamphlet by Mary C. Senander, Human Life Alliance of Minnesota, Inc., Post Office Box 293, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55440. 1986.

A person may feel justified and secure in signing a "Living Will," but, even if the document were medically and legally secure in every way at the time of its signing, there is no way of knowing how the definitions and rules will change as the pro-euthanasia groups lobby and push for more favorable (for them) conditions.

Take as an example the most common "form" "Living Will," which has been signed by millions; "If I am permanently unconscious or there is no reasonable expectation of my recovery from a seriously incapacitating or lethal illness or condition, I do not wish to be kept alive by artificial means."

Ten years ago, "artificial means" would have meant truly extraordinary or "heroic" medical or surgical procedures. Now, in some states, respirators, codes, kidney dialysis, and even food and water are defined as "artificial!" In other words, a person might sign a 'Living Will' in a state where food and water are standard treatment, and then travel to a state where they are defined as "extraordinary treatment," and become incapacitated. Or else, the courts or legislator in his home state may quietly define food and water as "extraordinary treatment," and he will not be aware of the fact.

What happens then?

Terms whose definitions are constantly shifting or are difficult to define are the heart of the "Living Will's" problems. Figure 111-1 lists the ten primary objections to current "Living Wills."

FIGURE 111-1

(1) The "Living Will" is unnecessary because everyone already has the right to make informed consent decisions about their own medical treatment.

(2) The "Living Will" is unnecessary because doctors are already free to withhold or withdraw useless procedures that provide no comfort or profit to terminal patients.

(3) The "Living Will" is unworkable because it is theoretically impossible to make well-informed and logical decisions regarding health care before illness or accidents happen. Nobody even knows how they will react if they are incapacitated.

(4) "Living Will" language appears to be precise, but in reality it is extremely vague, and can be interpreted in an almost unlimited number of ways, many contrary to the actual intent of the signer.

(5) The "Living Will" is counterproductive because doctors are currently protected from malpractice suits to a certain degree when dealing with terminal cases. However, the addition of a relatively random legal element such as the "Living Will" greatly increases the possibility of malpractice claims by surviving relatives due to the extremely vague language of the "Living Will." Physicians are in the midst of an acute malpractice crisis. A doctor may take the safest course of action for himself and withhold treatment that would preserve the life of the patient in cases where there is some question brought on by the vagueness of the "Living Will" language. In other words dead patients don't sue!

(6) The "Living Will" is counterproductive because it may restrict physicians and relatives from making health care decisions that are truly in the best interests of the incapacitated signer.

(7) The definitions contained in a "Living Will" are constantly changing. For example, the term "heroic treatment" may soon evolve to include food and water. Therefore, a person signing a "Living Will" now may have unintentionally signed his own death warrant by starvation and thirst if he does not carefully keep up with legislation in the area of health care decisions. And it is a safe bet to say that 99 percent of "Living Will" signers do not do this.

(8) Legally binding fill-in-the-blank "Living Wills" do not make age distinctions. A person who might refuse a certain life-sustaining measure if he were dying of brain cancer at age 85 may not refuse the same treatment if he were the victim of a car accident at age 25. The "Living Will" makes no distinctions in this matter.

(9) The "Living Will" is dangerous because it does not completely define the complex term "competency." Therefore, a person who decides to contradict one or more of the specifications in his own "Living Will" might be refused because he is ruled technically "incompetent."

(10) The "Living Will" is dangerous because there is a heavy push on for cost containment and socialized or nationalized health care. The widespread use of "Living Wills" will insure that the balance tips towards undertreating patients, which has killed a thousand times as many people as overtreating them.

Emergency Room Intruder.

If "Living Wills" become popular, their existence will vastly complicate hospital decisionmaking. How would a doctor treat a patient who has not signed a "Living Will?" Would he expend every effort possible to save the patient? Or no effort at all, in the belief that the person wanted no treatment whatever? If a significant percentage of the population had signed "Living Wills," would it be assumed that every possible effort should be expended to save all emergency room patients? How can the physician be certain that a person has or has not signed a "Living Will?"

Perhaps uppermost in the physician's mind is the fact that failure to comply with a legally binding "Living Will" would make him liable for damages. What would he do if confronted with an emergency situation where the status of the patient's "Living Will" were unknown? Would he proceed with treatment that might be against the patient's wishes? What would he do if the "Living Will" specified some action or lack of action that conflicted with his religious beliefs, or with hospital regulations? What if a custom-written "Living Will" featured particularly bizarre or dangerous specifications based on personal beliefs?

The personal beliefs of doctors, of course, carry little weight in the legal system. This will inevitably lead to physicians being forced to choose between their consciences and their jobs and security. Doctors will be forced to choose death over life.

In fact, some states now require that a doctor not only try, but actually find another physician willing to kill the patient, under pain of severe penalties in some cases, even jail terms.

The Current Status of "Living Will" Legislation.

As of the end of 1990, 38 states and the District of Columbia have "Living Will" statutes. The status of this legislation, and the protections offered or withheld, is summarized in Figure 111-2.

FIGURE 111-2

Alabama (1981) [3] Mississippi (1984) [3]
Alaska (1986) [4] Missouri (1985) [1]
Arkansas (1987) [3] Montana (1985) [1]
Arizona (1985) [1,5] Nevada (1977) [3]
California (1976) [2] New Hampshire (1985) [1]
Colorado (1985) [1,5] New Mexico (1977) [2,5]
Connecticut (1985) [1] North Carolina (1983) [3,5]
Delaware (1982) [3] Oklahoma (1985) [1]
District of Columbia (1982) [2,5] Oregon (1977) [1,5]
Florida (1984) [1] South Carolina (1987) [1]
Georgia (1984) [1] Tennessee (1985) [1,5]
Hawaii (1986) [1] Texas (1977) [2]
Idaho (1977) [1] Utah (1985) [1]
Illinois (1983) [1] Vermont (1982) [2,5]
Indiana (1985) [1] Virginia (1983) [2,5]
Iowa (1985) [1] Washington (1979) [2]
Kansas (1979) [2] West Virginia (1984) [2,5]
Louisiana (1984) [2,5] Wisconsin (1984) [1]
Maine (1985) [1,5] Wyoming (1984) [1]
Maryland (1985) [1]


[1] These states exclude nutrition and hydration from the definition of "life-sustaining procedures" that may be included or excluded by the patient's "Living Will."

[2] These states do not specifically mention the status of nutrition and hydration in their "Living Wills," because most of their laws were enacted before 1984, when nutrition and hydration were considered separate from medical treatment. Eleven of these states and the District of Columbia, although silent on the matter of nutrition and hydration, offer some protection due to rigid definitions of the terms "imminent death," "terminal condition," and "life-sustaining procedures."

[3] States that have passed "Living Will" legislation that is silent on the status of nutrition and hydration and offer no real protection due to their loose definitions of "imminent death," "terminal condition," and "life-sustaining procedures."

[4] In 1986, Alaska passed legislation which includes nutrition and hydration in its definition of life-sustaining treatment that may be withdrawn. This is the most liberal and frightening "Living Will" statute on the books. Significantly, it is considered the most ideal existing "Living Will" by "Right to Die" groups.

[5] In accordance with the Supreme Court abortion decision Roe v. Wade, these states allow "Living Wills" for pregnant women. This means that a woman may be euthanized even if her baby is full-term. Even those states that do not allow the killing of a pregnant woman have endured strong challenges from those who believe that she should be allowed to not only commit suicide, but murder-suicide.

References. "Living Wills." Human Life News (publication of the Washington State National Right to Life affiliate), November/December 1988, page 2. Also see "Guide to the Living Will." Hippocrates Magazine, May/June 1988, page 60. Also see Society for the Right to Die. Handbook of Living Will Laws, 1981-1984, Handbook of 1985 Living Will Laws, and annual updates.

References: The "Living Will."

[1] Derek Humphry, quoted in Leslie Bond. "Hemlock Society Forms New Organization to Push Assisted Suicide Initiative." National Right to Life News, December 18, 1986, pages 1 and 10.

[2] Presentation by Dutch cardiologist Richard Fenigsen, M.D., Ph.D., at Seattle University on November 2, 1990. Described in "Holland Euthanasia Experience Described." Human Life News (Washington State). November/December 1990, page 6.

Further Reading: The "Living Will."

Paul A. Bryne, M.D. Understanding Brain Death.
Order from American Life League, Post Office Box 2250, Stafford, Virginia 22554. Is "brain death" really the death of the person? This booklet examines this critical question.

Father Robert Barry, O.P. Protecting the Medically Dependent: Social Challenge and Ethical Imperative.
Order from American Life League, Post Office Box 2250, Stafford, Virginia 22554. How to construct, ethically and legislatively, a proper plan of protection for the seriously ill.

A.R. Saqueton, M.D. In Defense of Life.
ARS Publishing Company, Post Office Box 6444, Stockton, California 95206. 232 pages, 1981. Reviewed by Felicia Goeken on page 9 of the May 10, 1982 issue of National Right to Life News and page 11 of the July 8, 1982 issue of the same publication. Also reviewed by Robert L. Sassone on page 20 of the May 1982 issue of ALL About Issues. One of the most valuable references available on "right to die" legislation. The 'Right to Die,' Living Wills, terminal conditions, and many other aspects of euthanasia are covered in this primer-type work.

Society for the Right to Die. Refusal of Treatment Legislation: A State By State Compilation of Enacted and Model Statutes.
Society for the Right to Die, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107, telephone: (212) 246-6973. This ring binder includes the full text of every living will and durable power of attorney statute in the United States, the model statute entitled the Uniform Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, and summaries and highlights of the significant features of all of these documents.

© American Life League BBS — 1-703-659-7111

This is a chapter of the Pro-Life Activist’s Encyclopedia published by American Life League.