Colorado End of Life Options – A Follow-Up

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I’m writing this as a follow-up to my last post, which elicited a heartfelt comment from a subscriber and a fruitful discussion on LinkedIn. . .

Voluntary euthanasia is when death is chosen by a person, when they are killed with their own expressed consent.  These types of requests and the consent needed for such must be clear.  To review a bit – passive euthanasia is when a person makes an advance directive in the form of a living will in which the person indicates the level of medical intervention – or lack thereof – in the event they are in an end-of-life scenario.  In the Colorado Medical Treatment Decision Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. 15-18-101 et seq., we distinguish between persistent vegetative state and terminal condition as the triggering circumstances for the application of the living will.  Persons dying according to the terms of their living will may direct in advance the withholding or withdrawal of certain medical interventions which would tend to prolong or sustain life. The Living Will is in essence a statement of wishes and the persons involved in providing for assisting with another’s grave medical condition must be aware of its existence and its contents.  Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is that an elder goes to a senior center or some other place to fill out a living will form, but the elder neglects to inform their family members they have done so.  No one knows of its existence or contents and so it is of no value.  This is why having “the conversation” – especially with one’s health care agent – is so valuable!

So, let’s get on with the discussion at hand.  Many of us have experience with active euthanasia in the form of “putting down” a beloved pet.  When my dear old dog Pepper was nearly paralyzed, we made the decision to euthanize her after considering the alternatives.  When two of my sons and I were with Pepper at the vet’s office (sitting on the floor with her, stroking her and telling her how much we loved her), she was injected with the drugs that would end her life.  The vet commented to me – “I wish we could do this for people.”

This is the paradox of passive and active euthanasia – that active euthanasia is more humane in that it hastens the death to alleviate the suffering, while passive euthanasia requires the withholding of the means of sustaining life – which means a person can go quickly if they are dependent on breathing support or. . . .  they will slip away slowly as they starve to death.

It occurs to me that many of us don’t think of the living will as a statement as to the form of euthanasia preference – or if there is no preference for such.  Is the living will a document that tells our loved ones to “let us go” or is it a document that gives the patient’s preference as a statement of self-determination, to be free from the unwanted interference of others?  Can it be both?

There are of course a wide variety of living will forms available.  While the documents are acceptable forms of stated preferences regarding euthanasia, different religious communities have their own preferred documents in compliance with their laws or traditions.  What is the distinction between letting someone die by not intervening and allowing a person to die by their own choice with the assistance of a doctor?  Is there really a bright line between the two?

Getting back to the “letting go” versus “self-determination” purposes of the living will, how do these play out in the context of active euthanasia or physician assisted death (as in the Colorado End-of-Life Options initiative)?  These tensions are even more pronounced in this context.  Where is the distinction between one’s not wanting to be a burden on loved ones and the subtle coercion that a gravely ill person may feel to “get on with” dying so that their loved ones can be liberated from the burdens of caring for the sick person?  I certainly am not suggesting answers.  What I am concerned about is that people seem to look for answers without regard to the question and what it entails or requires.

An exclusive focus on the self-determination rights of gravely ill people to be statutorily allowed to take their own lives – with the assistance of medical doctors – skews the discussion.  I liked Jennifer Ballentine’s article entitled “Law & Sausage: Physician Assisted Death and the Solution to Suffering.”  You can read it here.

The attraction is clear – to focus on the individual right to extend medical self-determination to include physician assisted death is a very American pastime!  We have a long tradition of championing and enshrining individual rights.  But in the context of active voluntary euthanasia, or end of life options, such exclusive focus myopically steers that discussion away from the critical context of the exercise of such a right [author’s disclaimer: I wear corrective lenses for correction of nearsightedness].  This right would certainly not exist in a vacuum.

I don’t think it is too much to consider a look at the bigger picture here and to identify in advance of our ballot choices this November the many unintended consequences which would flow from our choice.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

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