Monday, 11/28, Health Law Workshop with Frances Kamm

November 28, 2016 5-7 PM
Hauser Hall, Room 104
Harvard Law School, 1575 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Presentation title: “Advanced and End of Life Care: Cautionary Suggestions”

This paper is not available for download. To request a copy in preparation for the workshop, please contact Jennifer Minnich at jminnich at law.harvard.edu.

Frances Kamm is the Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government and Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences.

She is the author of Creation and Abortion (1992); Morality, Mortality, Vol. 1: Death and Whom to Save From It (1993); Morality, Mortality, Vol. 2: Rights, Duties, and Status (1996); Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (2007), and, most recently, Ethics for Enemies: Terror, Torture, & War (2011). She also has published many articles on normative ethical theory and practical ethics.

Professor Kamm has held ACLS, AAUW, and Guggenheim fellowships, and has been a Fellow of the Program in Ethics and the Professions at the Kennedy School, the Center for Human Values at Princeton, and the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford.

She is a member of the editorial boards of Philosophy & Public AffairsLegal TheoryBioethics, and Utilitas, and was a consultant on ethics to the World Health Organization.

Honing the Emerging Right to Stop Eating and Drinking

By Norman L. Cantor

A stricken medical patient has a well-established right to reject life-extending medical interventions.  A person afflicted with pulmonary disease is entitled to reject a respirator, a person with kidney dysfunction can reject dialysis, and a person with a swallowing disorder can reject artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH).  State and federal courts uniformly invoke competent patients’ interests in self-determination and bodily integrity to uphold a patient’s prerogative to shape their own medical course.  The patient’s right extends not just to intrusive machinery, but also to simplistic, non-burdensome medical intrusions like an I.V. tube or a blood transfusion.

Some patients facing fatal or seriously degenerative conditions seek to hasten their demise by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED) before the stage of decline when they are dependent on life-sustaining medical intervention.  They see SED as a way to shorten their ordeal by precipitating death by dehydration within 14 days while receiving mild palliative intervention to foreclose distress before slipping into a terminal coma. The SED process entails days of lingering incapacity and is a distasteful prospect for some patients.  But it is regarded by other patients as a relatively quick, peaceful, and humane way of ending a mortal struggle now deemed to be intolerably arduous.

Numerous medico-legal commentators, myself included,[1] have asserted that a stricken patient has “a right” to VSED.   These commentators associate a patient’s decision to cease nutrition and hydration with the established constitutional right to reject life-sustaining medical intervention.  They note that the fasting person is invoking bodily integrity – precluding any feeding spoon from penetrating their mouth or nutritional tube from being inserted into their body – as well as autonomy in shaping a response to a serious affliction.   They also observe that the proffered succor (in the form of forced feeding or artificial nutrition) demands medically skilled intervention generally subject to a competent patient’s control.

The formal legal authority is thin.  Commentators point to several lower court decisions where judges refused to authorize medical override of a fasting patient.  No high level judicial body has spoken to the precise issue. Continue reading

Monday, 11/7, HLS Health Law Workshop with Trudo Lemmens

November 7, 2016 5-7 PM
Hauser Hall, Room 104
Harvard Law School, 1575 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Presentation: “While Canada Ventures into Legalized Medical Assistance in Dying, What Can It Learn from the Belgian Euthanasia Experience?”

To request a copy of the paper in preparation for the workshop, please contact Jennifer Minnich at jminnich@law.harvard.edu.

Trudo Lemmens is Professor and Scholl Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He holds cross appointments in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Joint Centre for Bioethics. Since joining the Faculty of Law, he has been a member of the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a visiting fellow of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, a visiting professor at the K.U.Leuven and the University of Otago (New Zealand), a Plumer Visiting Fellow at Oxford’s St. Anne’s College, and an academic visitor at the Faculty of Law and the HeLEX Center for Health, Law and Emerging Technologies at the University of Oxford.

Lemmens holds a Licentiate of Laws (LL.Lic.) from the KU Leuven (Belgium) and both a Master of Laws (LLM, specialization bioethics) and Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) from McGill University. His research sits at the interface of law, ethics, and professional governance. Currently, his research focuses on the complex interaction between law, other governance tools, and ethical norms and values in the context of health care, biomedical research, health product development, and knowledge production.

Lemmens’ publications include the co-authored book Reading the Future? Legal and Ethical Challenges of Predictive Genetic Testing, the co-edited volume Law and Ethics in Biomedical Research: Regulation, Conflict of Interest, and Liability, as well as numerous chapters and articles in national and international law, policy, science, medicine and bioethics journals. He is currently a member of the Advisory Committee on Health Research of the Pan American Health Organization and of the Board of the Ontario Mental Health Foundation.

TOMORROW, 11/2! The 21st-Century Advanced Illness Care Team: How Team-based Care is Moving Medicine Beyond the Clinic into the Home and Community

The 21st-Century Advanced Illness Care Team: How Team-based Care is Moving Medicine Beyond the Clinic into the Home and Community
November 2, 2016 12:00 PM
Pound Hall, Room 101
Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Care for advanced illness is moving beyond the hospital and physician office and into the home and community. Addressing the needs of the individual with advanced illness increasingly requires an interdisciplinary team of providers, with significant policy implications.

This panel discussion will feature voices across specialties and professions addressing clinical and policy solutions.

Speakers:

  • Cheryl Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer, American Academy of Nursing
  • Sandra Schellinger, Senior Scientist, Late Life Supportive Care Research, Allina Health System
  • Brad Stuart, Chief Medical Officer, Coalition to Transform Advanced Care
  • Ravi Parikh, Clinical Fellow, Harvard Medical School, Resident in Internal Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  • Mark Sterling, Senior Fellow, Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

Part of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care(C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School focused on development and spread of effective person-centered models of advanced illness care through interdisciplinary analysis of important health law and policy issues.

Organs and Overdoses: The Numbers (Part I)

By Brad Segal

The surging opioid epidemic is a threat to the nation’s public health. This year the CDC reported that mortality from drug overdose reached an all-time high, with the annual death toll more than doubling since 2000. Yet in the backdrop of this epidemic, the country also faces ongoing shortages of a different sort–too few organs for transplantation. Every day, approximately 22 people die while waiting for an organ to become available. To some it is not a surprise–or at least not inconceivable–that the fastest-growing source of organ donors is being fueled by the national spike in drug overdoses. This first post will help delineate the scope and scale of the situation. My follow-up will discuss the ethical considerations and ramifications for public policy.

To start: the numbers. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) makes domestic transplant data publicly available online, which currently extends from 1994 to September 30th, 2016. Two decades ago, 29 organ donors died from a drug overdose.* In just the first nine months of this year, that number has climbed to 888 donors. Even with a quarter of the calendar year left to be counted, 2016 has already surpassed previous record set in 2015 (Figure 1).

figure-1

Figure 1

One might question whether this trend is an illusion–perhaps a rise in the incidence of donors who had overdosed reflects an increasing number of transplants. But the data suggest the opposite. Also plotted in Figure 1, the percentage of total organ donors who died from overdose (maroon diamonds, right-sided Y axis) has not remained constant–instead, the percentage has steadily increased. Two decades ago, overdose caused the deaths of 0.6% of all organ donors; this year, it is the cause of death among 12.0% of organ donors nationwide. The rising percentage means that not only are more victims of drug overdose donating organs, but that the pool of organ donors is increasingly composed of such individuals. Continue reading

Marking the 40th Anniversary of In re Quinlan’s Landmark Contribution to Death & Dying Jurisprudence

by Norman L. Cantor

In 1976, the N.J. Supreme Court issued a remarkably insightful ruling regarding the legal status of a permanently unconscious patient.  In re Quinlan served as a judicial beacon guiding development of death & dying jurisprudence.  Its impact is reminiscent of the judicial role played by Brown v. Board of Education in public education.

To appreciate the wondrous nature of Quinlan, recall the setting and background of the case.  In 1975, a 22 year-old woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, was lying unconscious in a N.J. hospital following 2 anoxic episodes caused by toxic ingestions.  She was sustained by a mechanical respirator and a naso-gastric tube.  The diagnosis was PVS (permanent vegetative state) and the prognosis was that the patient would inevitably die within a year without regaining consciousness.  Ms. Quinlan’s devoted parents reluctantly concluded that their daughter would not want to be maintained in her dismal, hopeless condition.  Their priest and spiritual advisor told them that Catholic doctrine would permit withdrawal of “extraordinary” medical intervention such as the respirator.   But when the parents asked the attending neurologist, Dr. Morse, to withdraw Karen’s respirator, he refused.  He contended that professional medical standards precluded that course.  The hospital concurred.  Facing this resistance, Ms. Quinlan’s father turned to the N.J. chancery court seeking formal appointment as his daughter’s guardian with explicit authorization to direct withdrawal of the respirator.

A variety of interested parties responded to Mr. Quinlan’s chancery petition and they all opposed it.  The county prosecutor asserted that pulling the respirator plug would constitute homicide and the state attorney general concurred.  The attending physicians and the hospital contended that pulling the plug would violate their professional responsibilities to the patient.  And a special guardian ad litem appointed to represent Karen Ann Quinlan insisted that it was in the helpless patient’s best interests to have her life prolonged.  The lower court denied the father’s petition and Mr. Quinlan appealed.

On appeal, the N.J. Supreme Court in 1976 faced the unenviable task of shaping legal policy toward medical conduct likely to precipitate the death of a helpless patient.  This was largely uncharted legal territory with no definitive precedents in state or federal courts.  Common sense said that it can’t be a legal mandate to keep pumping fluids and gases into moribund patients until the last possible breath.  Yet a chorus of naysayers proclaimed that pulling the respirator plug on Ms. Quinlan would be unlawful homicide, or a breach of professional medical responsibility to preserve patients’ lives, or a violation of a guardian’s fiduciary obligation to act in a ward’s best interests.  And even if some circumstances might warrant removal of life-preserving medical interventions, hard questions existed about who is entitled to be the decision maker and what test or criteria govern such surrogate decision making.

Continue reading

Malpractice, Terminal Patients, and Cause in Fact

By Alex Stein

Any person interested in medical malpractice or torts in general must read the Missouri Supreme Court’s recent decision, Mickels v. Danrad, 486 S.W.3d 327 (Mo. 2016). This decision involved a physician who negligently failed to diagnose the presence of a malignant brain tumor, from which the patient was doomed to die. The patient first saw the physician when he experienced numbness, blurred vision, and headaches. The physician sent the patient to an MRI scan, which he subsequently reviewed but made no diagnosis. Eleven weeks later, the patient arrived at a hospital in an altered mental state and underwent a CT scan of his brain, which showed a malignant and incurable tumor. Four months later, the patient died of that tumor. According to patient’s oncologist – who testified as a witness in a subsequent malpractice trial – the tumor was incurable when the patient first saw the physician. The plaintiffs offered no evidence controverting that testimony. Continue reading

California the latest to pass a Death with Dignity law, 5th in US

Medical personnel are trained to “first do no harm.” In end-of-life treatment, that simple directive can be difficult to interpret, and the legal landscape has evolved in the United States over the past 25 years. In 1990, the US Supreme Court ruled that physicians and other health care providers could withhold medical treatment at the direction of a patient or the patient’s directed agent.

Most recently, a movement to provide patients’ help in dying has been termed “death with dignity” and “assisted suicide.” Federal law does not currently address euthanasia or “mercy killings” in terminal patients who seek a physician’s aid to end their own suffering. Rather, the patient’s right to obtain a physician’s or other health care provider’s help to end their life is established by state law. Continue reading

REGISTER NOW! Aligning Policy and People: Why the Time is Right to Transform Advanced Care

hands_Ingram Publishing_slideJune 21, 2016, 9am – 1pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Register now!

Description

Please join us for the inaugural event of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition for Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. This conference will feature policymakers, thought leaders, family caregivers, clinicians, consumer advocates, and others working to identify the timely, practical, and actionable opportunities to transform care for people with advanced illness nearing end-of-life.

Confirmed Speakers

Continue reading

REGISTER NOW: Aligning Policy and People: Why the Time is Right to Transform Advanced Care

hands_Ingram Publishing_slideJune 21, 2016, 9am – 1pm

Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East (2036), Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Register now!

Description

Please join us for the inaugural event of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition for Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. This conference will feature policymakers, thought leaders, family caregivers, clinicians, consumer advocates, and others working to identify the timely, practical, and actionable opportunities to transform care for people with advanced illness nearing end-of-life.

Confirmed Speakers

Continue reading

Is It Immoral for Me to Dictate an Accelerated Death for My Future Demented Self?

by Norman L. Cantor

I am obsessed with avoiding severe dementia. As a person who has always valued intellectual function, the prospect of lingering in a dysfunctional cognitive state is distasteful — an intolerable indignity. For me, such mental debilitation soils the remembrances to be left with my survivors and undermines the life narrative as a vibrant, thinking, and articulate figure that I assiduously cultivated. (Burdening others is also a distasteful prospect, but it is the vision of intolerable indignity that drives my planning of how to respond to a diagnosis of progressive dementia such as Alzheimers).

My initial plan was to engineer my own demise while still competent to do so. My sketch of methodologies and my preferred course (stopping eating and drinking) appear at: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/billofhealth/2015/04/16/my-plan-to-avoid-the-ravages-of-extreme-dementia/. The obvious hazard in that plan is cutting short a still vibrant and satisfactory existence.

An alternative strategy would be to allow myself to decline into incompetency, but beforehand to dictate, in an advance directive, rejection of future life-sustaining medical interventions. This strategy would probably work as applied to serious maladies such as kidney disease, lethal cancer, or congestive heart failure. The disturbing issue then becomes timing. The onset of such serious maladies is fortuitous and years of lingering in dementia might precede my demise.

A further alternative would be to seek to accelerate my post-competence demise by declining not only major medical interventions such as mechanical respirators or dialysis, but also more simplistic items like antibiotics, antiarrhythmics, and artificial nutrition and hydration. My envisioned scenario is that infection would occur early (via urinary tract, skin, or pneumonia) and that this condition, left untreated, would precipitate my death. (My advance instructions would allow palliative but not curative measures.)

Continue reading

Lecture Tomorrow, 11/10! Euthanasia in Belgium: The most recent legal developments and policy challenges

Euthanasia in Belgium: The most recent legal developments and policy challenges
November 10, 2015 11:00 AM – 12:15 PM

Conference Room, 1st floor
Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School
641 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA [Map]

A lecture by Sigrid Sterckx, Professor of Ethics and Political and Social Philosophy, Ghent University, Belgium; End-of-Life Care Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Ghent University, Belgium; Bioethics Institute Ghent, Ghent University, Belgium.

In 2002, euthanasia by a physician (the intentional termination of a patient’s life at his or her request) was depenalized in Belgium for adults and emancipated minors. In 2014, the law was extended to competent minors, without an age limit. The frequency of performance of euthanasia is rising very rapidly, having more than doubled in the last five years (accounting for one death in twenty, about 8 per day in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region). Moreover, although the prevalence of euthanasia remains highest in patients with cancer, a clear shift is visible in the characteristics of patients who request euthanasia and whose requests are granted. The largest increases are among women, and those aged 80 or older, with lower education levels, and those dying in nursing homes. Continue reading

Finally, a Final Rule on Advance Care Planning

In a victory for common sense, good policy, and good care, reimbursement for end-of-life counseling was safely tucked into the 2016 Medicare Payment Rules issued by CMS last Friday. The calm adoption of advance care planning shows welcome progress from the “death panels” hysteria that plagued this sensible policy when it was first proposed six years ago. The list of advance care planning supporters is long, including: numerous physician organizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institutes of Medicine, the American Hospital Association, and over 80 percent of Americans. So, what is advanced care planning and why does it matter?

Given the circus that originally surrounded it, people may be surprised to learn that this policy simply involves the addition of two billable codes to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. The first code, 99497, covers an initial 30-minute consultation on end-of-life planning, with a second, 99498, covering 30 additional minutes, if needed. Importantly, patients do not need to be seriously ill to access this benefit – a consultation can be scheduled at any time, for example, as part of an annual physical. During this meeting, patients discuss the kind of interventions they would want if they become critically ill, or as they approach the end of life. Such conversations enable collaboration between the patient, family, and medical team – it opens the door for an ongoing dialogue about priorities and goals of care (which may evolve over time).

Planning for the end of life matters because advances in medicine have created a dizzying array of interventions and palliative care options for people who are gravely ill. There are many clinical and psychosocial benefits to communicating one’s preferences around end of life care. In a September 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 89 percent of respondents said doctors should discuss end-of-life plans with patients – but only 17 percent had actually had such a discussion with their doctor. Formal recognition of the value of advance care planning is an important step in encouraging more patients and doctors to initiate the conversation.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan: Euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands: On a Slippery Slope?

Bill of Health Contributor Art Caplan and Barron Lerner have a new piece up in JAMA Internal Medicine:

The slippery slope is an argument frequently invoked in the world of bioethics. It connotes the notion that a particular course of action will lead inevitably to undesirable and unintended consequences. Saying no to the original action, even if that act is moral in itself, may, in light of the slope that looms, be the ethical thing to do.

Slippery slope arguments have been especially pervasive in discussions of euthanasia, in which physicians actively end patients’ lives, and physician-assisted dying (or physician-assisted suicide), in which physicians supply medications to patients that enable them to end their own lives. The concern, fueled by the German experience with racially motivated euthanasia in the last century, has been that approving either of these procedures for a few individuals will inevitably lead to overuse and abuse. […]

Read the full article here.

Mourning the Loss of Professor Bo Burt

By Abbe Gluck

Yale Law School and so many others in the medical-legal community mourn the sudden passing of our colleague and friend, Robert (“Bo”) Burt.  As many readers of this blog know, Bo was an early pioneer in thinking about doctor-patient relationships and the hardest questions about the end of life. He worked for years on the Soros Project, Death in America, and authored numerous books, including In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012); Death is That Man Taking Names: Intersections of American Medicine, Law and Culture (Univ. of California Press and the Milbank Memorial Fund, 2002); and Taking Care of Strangers: The Rule of Law in Doctor-Patient Relations (Free Press, 1979). His YLS obituary is here.  He will be sorely missed and always remembered.

Human Rights Tribunal Upholds France’s Policies on Ending Life Support for Permanently Unaware Patients

By Norman L. Cantor

France recently confronted its version of America’s 2005 Schiavo case (in which the Florida Supreme Court upheld a spouse’s determination to end life support to a permanently unconscious patient despite the patient’s parents’ objections). In 2014, France’s Conseil d’Etat ruled that artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) could be withdrawn from a permanently vegetative patient based on oral statements that the patient had made, while competent, indicating unwillingness to be medically sustained in such a condition. The patient’s objecting parents then sought a declaration from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that such termination of life support would violate the European Convention on Human Rights. On June 5, 2015, the ECHR rejected the objecting parents’ contention, finding that France’s approach met human rights standards both in the process and the criteria followed by medical personnel in deciding to end life support.   Lambert v. France, #46043/14 (ECHR 2015).

Vincent Lambert, then 32 years old, was grievously injured in a 2008 traffic accident. He suffered massive brain trauma and was hospitalized for the next 7 years at Reims University Hospital. His precise medical status was initially uncertain. In July 2011, a medical evaluation found him to be “minimally conscious plus.” Over the next year and a half, he underwent 87 speech therapy sessions which failed to establish any code of communication between Mr. Lambert and his surroundings. In early 2013, the attending physician, Dr. Kariger, initiated a process to review Mr. Lambert’s condition and to determine whether the ANH sustaining Mr. Lambert should be withdrawn.

The process that followed was extensive. During 2013, Dr. Kariger consulted with 6 physicians concerning the patient’s mental status and held 2 family meetings at which Mr. Lambert’s wife, Rachel, his parents, and 8 siblings were present. In January 2014, Dr. Kariger announced his determination to end artificial nutrition and reduce hydration. Dr. Kariger’s written report explained that Mr. Lambert had become permanently unaware of his environment and, according to accounts of Mr. Lambert’s prior oral expressions, he would not wish to be medically sustained in such a debilitated condition. Five of the six medical consultants agreed, as did the patient’s wife and 6 of his 8 siblings.

Continue reading

Cassandra C. Goes Home – Connecticut Misses an Opportunity

By Jonathan F. Will

On Monday Cassandra C. was sent home from the hospital.  Her cancer is in remission after responding well to treatments.  Many will recall that those treatments were forced on Cassandra against her wishes and those of her mother.   Back in January, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a two-page order agreeing with state officials that Cassandra, at seventeen years three months, should be compelled to undergo chemotherapy to treat her Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The success of this medical treatment may be viewed by some to vindicate the comments of those like bioethicist Art Caplan and Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson, Jr., who agreed with the decision.  Indeed, Mr. Johnson, after giving a personal anecdote of his own history with Hodgkin’s Disease, declared this decision to be right on the law, right on the ethics, and right on humanity.

Mr. Johnson gave the impression that a minor should never be permitted to make such a medical decision, while Dr. Caplan at least implied that his conclusion might be different if the refusal was based on religious beliefs.  Then you have a commentator in The Economist who came to the exact opposite conclusion.  He expressed concerns about Cassandra’s liberty and the rights of her mother to make decisions on her behalf.

I’m not so easily convinced by their arguments.

Continue reading

Bioethicists Art Caplan & Tom Mayo: Lawmakers have no business legislating end-of-life decisions

A new piece by contributor Art Caplan along with Tom Mayo in The Dallas Morning News:

This week, the Texas Legislature considered restoring to pregnant women a right every other adult Texan already enjoys: the right to make health-care treatment decisions in an advance directive or through the next-of-kin who speaks for them.

House Bill 3183 would eliminate all vestiges of the “pregnancy exclusion” from Texas’ Advance Directives Act. If it passes, the bill would remove the basis on which a Fort Worth hospital in 2013 kept brain-dead and pregnant Marlise Muñoz on life support for two months. This was done despite her husband’s insistence that his wife would not want to be hooked up to machines under those circumstances.

Eventually, a trial court agreed with her husband and declared that the pregnancy exclusion and the entire Advance Directives Act did not apply to a patient once she had died. That was only after Marlise Muñoz’s family had to endure the unimaginable pain of watching her corpse deteriorate before their eyes. Little wonder that they support “Marlise’s Law” and were in Austin to testify in support of the bill. […]

Read the full article here.

My Plan to Avoid the Ravages of Extreme Dementia

Guest Post by Norman L. Cantor
Professor of Law and Justice Nathan L. Jacobs Scholar Emeritus
Rutgers School of Law – Newark

The first signs of my friend Gertie’s descent into dementia were mild — confusion about days of the week and memory loss about recent events. These were troubling but understandable phenomena in my then 84 year-old friend. Aging inevitably entails some cognitive decline. Over time, though, her symptoms of mental deterioration worsened — disinterest in pursuits like reading and listening to music that had once occupied and entertained her, forgetting not just long-time friends, but even her devoted husband who had died years earlier, and obsessive repetition of certain thoughts and phrases. Now 89, Gertie barely recognizes the devoted caregivers around her. She cannot recall her distant or recent past, she no longer knows who or where she is. Gertie remains physically tenacious, with no life-threatening maladies. While dependent on assistance for dressing, eating, ambulating, bathing, and toileting, Gertie may continue in her mentally detached and dysfunctional limbo for years more.

I am determined to avoid Gertie’s fate. So I am now contemplating how to respond if and when I am diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. My prime object is to avoid the precipitous mental deterioration accompanying advanced Alzheimer’s or similar dementia. My aversion is not based on prospective emotional distress and suffering. While some people in sharp mental decline may experience anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, confusion, or agitation, some, like Gertie, seem placid and indifferent to their debilitation. My aversion is grounded rather in my abhorrence of reduced mental function to a degree I deem intolerably demeaning. Such a status is unacceptable to me whether or not I would experience distress in a future demented state.

Keep in mind that I spent my work career as an academic. My personal satisfaction and self-image have flowed largely from intellectual functions like observation, reflection, and analysis. Inability to understand and process information is, for me, an intolerably undignified status. This preoccupation with future mental dysfunction reflects unwillingness to soil the lifetime image to be left with my survivors. I care mightily about posthumous recollections of my personality and I seek to shape my life trajectory (including a dying process) in a way that preserves a modicum of dignity. Continue reading

Bioethicist Art Caplan: Ten years after Terri Schiavo, death debates still divide us

A new piece by contributor Art Caplan on Today Health:

Terri Schiavo died 10 years ago today — not long after her feeding tube was removed by order of a Florida judge acting at the request of Schiavo’s husband that his wife be allowed to die.

She was 41 and had spent nearly half her life in a vegetative state after suffering a cardiac arrest in 1990, causing a severe lack of oxygen and brain damage. The highly publicized legal case surrounding her husband’s plea not to keep her artificially alive roused debates across the world and at the U.S. Supreme Court.

What is Schiavo’s legacy? What have we since learned about brain function, vegetative states, and how we should talk about death — long before we’re gone?

Continue reading here.