by Norman L. Cantor
In the early days of living wills — the 1970’s and 1980’s – a major objective was to avoid being maintained on burdensome medical machinery in a highly debilitated status at the end stage of a fatal affliction. The contemporaneous legislation endorsing advance directives was typically geared to “terminal illness” (meaning likely death within 6 months). The distasteful specter was a moribund patient tethered to burdensome interventions like a respirator or a dialysis machine despite an unavoidable, looming demise. A common short-form living will rejected life support that “only prolongs the dying process” for a patient in “a terminal condition.”[i]
Another specter was being medically sustained in an utterly dismal quality of life – such as permanent unconsciousness without awareness or interaction with one’s environment. The contemporaneous legislation explicitly authorized advance directives seeking to avoid medical maintenance in a permanently vegetative state. And several landmark cases authorizing surrogate end-of-life determinations involved permanently unconscious patients. See Quinlan (N.J. 1976); Brophy, (Mass. 1986); Browning (Fla. 1990); Schiavo (Fla. 2005).
With the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and similar degenerative dementias, the focus of advance directives has changed for some people. The primary specter is neither an unavoidable looming demise nor the insensate limbo of permanent unconsciousness. Rather, the emerging concern is protracted maintenance during progressively increasing cognitive dysfunction and helplessness. For some, being mired in a demented state is an intolerably degrading prospect well before the advanced stage when the person no longer recognizes loved ones and is totally uncomprehending.
For people like me who see even moderate dementia as an intolerably demeaning status staining their life image, their advance directive may seek to facilitate death by declining even simplistic medical interventions like antibiotics. Our hope is that death will soon ensue when an infection is left untreated or when artificial nutrition and hydration is withheld in the face of an eating disorder. Continue reading