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  • The Patient Self-Determination Act
  • Elizabeth Leibold McCloskey (bio)

What are the ethics of extending the length of life? We know that we cannot artificially end life (Thou Shalt not Kill), but how about artificially extending life? Is that always good, sometimes good? . . . In ethics, is keeping people alive the highest good? Should our priority be to keep people breathing? . . . What does basic religious ethics say about this?

(John C. Danforth, letter to the author, 19 August 1989)

The Patient Self-Determination Act, signed into law as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (OBRA '90) last November, marks the first time that Congress has passed legislation concerning the ethics of life-sustaining medical treatment. The bill was spearheaded by Senator John C. Danforth (RMO), who has a special interest in this area. An Episcopal priest, Danforth was formerly an assistant chaplain at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and now sits as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid. Although Senator Danforth's legislative initiative was not a result of the Cruzan case, it was in his state of Missouri that the U.S. Supreme Court case involving removal of Nancy Cruzan's feeding tube arose (Cruzan v. Director of Missouri Department of Health, U.S. Supreme Court, 58 LW 4916, 26 June 1990). From his unique vantage point, he felt it was time to craft a legislative response to some of the difficult issues surrounding prolongation of life.

The short answer to Senator Danforth's questions about when to artificially extend life is simple enough: people must be free to determine that for themselves. Common law and common sense dictate such a conclusion; living will and health care proxy statutes, enacted in almost every state, codify that right. The Catholic moral tradition teaches that one is not morally obligated to use extraordinary means to prolong life, a tradition shared both by the mainline Protestant and the reform and conservative Jewish community. Yet most people are unaware of their fundamental legal right to make such decisions, and as court cases from Quinlan (In re Quinlin, 137 N.J. Super. 227, 1975) to Cruzan demonstrate, few know [End Page 163] how to make arrangements for this right to be exercised if they become incapacitated.

Meanwhile, health care practices are often driven by a denial of death. When Senator Danforth and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) introduced the bill on October 17, 1989, Senator Danforth said:

More and more it is arguable that we play God by subjecting people to unwanted and sometimes unnecessary treatment, treatment that unnaturally prolongs the dying process. Our health care system has become obsessed with extending life, at times neglecting the caring component of medicine and trampling on the rights of patients.

(Congressional Record 1989, 135:5.13566)

The American Hospital Association estimates that 70 percent of deaths now occur after a determination to withhold or withdraw medical treatment. Many of those decisions are made without the benefit of an incapacitated patient's views, yet a Harvard study revealed that 95 percent of the population would like to prepare in advance for such decisions. Only 4 percent of hospitals have a systematic method of asking patients if they have an advance directive. Family members confront painful choices in the face of uncertainty about their loved one's wishes and it can be even more painful when a family knows the patient's desires but providers and the courts act otherwise because clear evidence is lacking.

The Patient Self-Determination Act is rooted in the belief that people should be given information that enables them to specify the extent of medical treatment they wish to receive should they become incapacitated. The public should be educated about applicable state laws that protect the individual's right to make such choices through the use of an advance directive.

The Act moves toward that goal by promoting knowledge of state laws. It requires every hospital, nursing home, home health agency, hospice, and health maintenance organization that participates in Medicaid or Medicare to routinely give all adult patients information about advance directives. Patients will also be given information on the...


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