Despite the polarization that often occurs between the pro life and pro choice camps, there are many issues upon which we can agree, particularly when we are faced with an injustice that violates the fundamental tenets of both pro choice and pro life philosophy. Futile care laws are an example of such injustice.
Quietly creeping up for over a decade, futile care laws give doctors and hospitals the right to withdraw treatment from patients even when the patients have a living will or healthcare proxy expressing the desire to continue these measures. For instance, a patient on kidney dialysis may be refused further treatment because age, concurrent medical issues, or his or her likelihood of finding a suitable organ donor. A person on a respirator may be denied that treatment because she has a terminal illness, is quadrapalegic, or has some other condition requiring treatment that her doctor considers heroic. A conscious person who has had a stroke may be denied food and water even if it is requested, if such sustenance must be administred with mechanical assistance.
In general, futile care laws enable to following situation: Person A has a severe medical condition and/or disability. He or she desires to continue life sustaining treatment that the doctor considers futile or wasteful. The doctor brings the case to a hospital ethics committee, which, after deliberation, overrides the patient’s stated desires regarding treatment. The person and his or her family than have 10 (in Texas) to 14 days (in Virginia) to find another hospital that will treat them, or the treatment will be withdrawn, resulting in death. Unfortunately, many hospitals will not treat patients whose treatment is considered futile by another hospital, which condemns these patients and their families to hospital/state imposed death, or contentious court battles, often in their last few weeks of life.
This type of state and medically-sponsored, life and death
discrimination need not be encoded in a specific law to be a threat.
For instance, the 2005 Haliegh Poutre case involved MA social services
attempting to remove her feeding tube and ventilator against her
biological mother’s wishes (she had been abused by her adopted family),
which was only stopped when she began showing signs of alertness after
a judge gave the go-ahead to override her family’s wishes. Similar
cases have occured in New Jersey, Alaska, and other states without
specific futile care laws. Supportors of meaningful healthcare reform
must also remain vigilant against healthcare rationing that would
discriminate against the disabled and elderly and deny them the medical
treatment that they need.
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Despite being a gross violation of both pro life and pro choice principles, these laws exist in states with Republican and Democratic leadership, indicating that this form of state-sponsored medical paternalism is not exclusive to either political party. The two most notable states with such laws are Texas, lead by governor Rick Perry (R) and Virginia, lead by Tim Kaine (D). In both cases, the laws were signed before these men took office, yet neither has taken action to rescind or ammend these laws. The media has also ignored these laws, and even organizations that are firmly committed to pro life and pro choice ideologies have drawn little attention to their activities in opposition to such laws.
People of good will on both sides of the abortion debate must join together to protect the common cause of universal human rights and justice. Together, we have the ability to make a difference and ensure that vulenerable people are not denied a choice about whether or not to continue recieving medical care, particularly when that medical care is the difference between life and death.
For more information, see the following links:
This links to testimony from Lanore Dixon, sister of Andrea Clark, who died in 2006 after a long battle between her, her family and the texas medical system.
This links to my website/group, Students and Citizens Against Futile Ethics, which attempts to increase awareness of futile care laws and their impact on disabled people, as well as other disability rights issues.