by Bill Beckman, Executive Director, Illinois Right to Life Committee
Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of seven columns first posted on the Illinois Right to Life Committee's (IRLC) website [http://www.illinoisrighttolife.org/
The following was written by Bill Beckman
You are preparing to take or have already enacted a life-affirming advance directive such as Illinois Right to Life Committee's Patient Self-Protection Document. Now you are fully protected, right? Unfortunately, in some cases, even this step may not be sufficient to protect your life in all cases. The following circumstances occurred in Texas, but some hospitals around the nation are forming ethics committees. These committees are making decisions about denial of patient care that, in some situations, can override a patient's advance directive, with, or even without, support of a state law. The only way to reduce the nightmare of encountering these circumstances is to verify that you are working with Pro-Life doctors and medical facilities.
What a change a few days can make! No, I am not talking about the weather. I am referring to the case of Andrea Clark, a patient at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas. On April 19, 2006 the hospital ethics committee decided that attempting to save Andrea’s life was futile, she should be removed from a respirator and all medical treatments should be stopped.
Even though Andrea is mentally alert, communicates by moving her lips and blinking her eyes, wants to live, and has the full support of her family, the hospital ethics committee decided further care for her was futile. Andrea, 54, developed bleeding on her brain after open-heart surgery and needed a respirator to breath. Although she suffered damage to her motor functions, her mental capacity was not affected.
As of May 2nd 2006, Andrea has a new doctor who is not planning to give up on her medical care and treatment, reported her sister Melanie Childers. “Not only is my sister not going to be put to death by St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, but it also looks like she is recovering from her heart surgery, finally,” Melanie said. Melanie also mentioned Dr. Matthew Lentz has told the family Andrea will be able to get off of the blood pressure raising drugs she has been on for months, and he is cutting in half the amount of pain medications she was taking. That will allow Andrea to better interact with her family.
Jerri Ward, the attorney for Andrea's family, stated, “St. Luke's is doing the right thing in this case now. The physician team met with the new attending [physician] and it went well. The team is on board and the medical futility procedure has been stopped.” This change in direction was certainly vital for Andrea! It is most fortunate Andrea's family was fighting for her right to life and found a physician who was willing to make another assessment of her case.
But why should patients’ lives be threatened by a medical facility that is supposed to provide them a means for recovery? Unfortunately, a Texas law gives hospitals the power to decide if a patient’s life is “worth” maintaining so officials at St. Luke’s Hospital are legally able to remove Andrea’s respirator against the expressed wishes of herself and her family. If the hospital ethics committee decides to withdraw care, the family has just 10 days to find another treatment center. It is not known how many patients have already died through lack of support from family members or from having no opportunity to get the opinion of another physician?
Bob Kafka, a disability rights activist with Not Dead Yet, stated, “I have come to the conclusion that the essence of any futility law embraces involuntary euthanasia. The ability of a doctor to overrule both the patient and their surrogate in withdrawing life-sustaining treatment is in violation of the principle of patient autonomy.” Kafka says the Texas law can not be improved, but should be thrown out entirely.
How far are the peddlers of death, labeling themselves the “right to die” movement, willing to go? Here is some evidence that the so-called "right to die" will eventually be deemed a "duty to die." This intent was made visible in a 1997 article written by philosopher John Hardwig which appeared in the Hastings Center Report, a prestigious bioethics journal. Hardwig argued that there is not only a right, but also a duty to die, including this frightening statement: “A duty to die becomes greater as you grow older. As we age, we will be giving up less by giving up our lives . . . To have reached the age of say, seventy-five or eighty years without being ready to die is itself a moral failing, the sign of a life out of touch with life's basic realities.” Here we go again -- more bait and switch, with semantics that promise one thing and deliver something else.
[Author's note: Unfortunately, Andrea contracted a sepsis infection that caused her death on May 7, 2006. At least she was given a chance to live rather than being prematurely euthanized. The ethics committee that Andrea's family had to overcome was empowered by a Texas state law, but ethics committees are being formed at many hospitals across America, and taking similar actions to deny "futile care" -- even without any state laws to give them cover.]
This column was first posted on RFFM.org in August of 2006.
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