Can the Right to Stop Eating and Drinking be Exercised via a Surrogate Acting Pursuant to an Advance Instruction?

by Norman L. Cantor

The right of a grievously stricken, competent patient to hasten death by ceasing eating and drinking is increasingly recognized. In the typical scenario, a person afflicted with a serious degenerative disease reaches a point where the immediate or prospective ordeal has become personally intolerable.  The stricken person decides to shorten the ordeal by stopping eating and drinking, precipitating death by dehydration within 14 days.  The dying process is not too arduous so long as there is a modicum of palliative care available – emotional support, lip and mouth care, and provision of a sedative if patient agitation or disorientation ensues.

A further question is whether a person can dictate a similar fatal course for his or her post-competence self by advance instruction to an agent.  The instruction would be that — once a pre-defined point of dementia has been reached — either no food or drink should be offered to the incompetent patient or no manual assistance should be provided where the patient is not self-feeding.  This post-competence SED tactic appeals to persons who view the prospective demented status as intolerably demeaning and wish to hasten their demise upon reaching that state. The legal claim would be that if a competent patient has a right to SED, the right ought to subsist post-competence when exercised by clear advance instruction.  According to this claim, just as an advance instruction to reject a respirator would be upheld as an exercise of prospective autonomy, so an instruction for cessation of nutrition should be respected.

     A person who undertakes responsibility for a demented person normally has a fiduciary duty to promote the well-being, comfort, and dignity of the ward.  A guardian who forgoes available care measures such as shelter, warmth, hygiene, and food is chargeable with unlawful neglect.  Provision of food and assistance in eating are normally part of that fiduciary obligation.  A legal exemption might apply, though, if the guardian – in discontinuing hand feeding pursuant to an advance instruction — is simply respecting the right of the ward to exercise prospective autonomy. The question becomes: Is the acknowledged right to SED exercisable by means of an advance instruction?  Continue reading