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Right to Die laws

Information on the law about Right to DieEuthanasia, Living WillsDurable Power of Attorney

Euthanasia laws, living wills, and the durable power of attorney, often referred to as the "Right-to-Die" laws, are concerned with how an individual who has become incapacitated may exert some influence and control over certain decisions that will be made concerning his or her care. Living wills and the durable power of attorney permit individuals to instruct his or her survivors, guardians, or attending physicians to either administer or withhold life support if they are near death and unable to communicate, such as when in a coma.

The moral questions raised by the right-to-die laws are a direct result of developments in modern technology. From the earliest times, the primary goal of doctors has been to cure the sick and comfort the dying. However, modern technology has now allowed them to prolong life beyond the body's natural ability to maintain itself. Machines can artificially breathe for a person; intravenous feeding can artificially supply sustenance. Indeed, technology can keep a patient's body completely alive even when its brain is dead.

A major problem arises in situations such as these when the patient's desires are not known; it is then up to others to decide how long artificial life-sustaining procedures should be administered. Next of kin are nearly always the ones to whom this emotionally difficult decision falls, and the complexity of right-to-die laws reveals just how legally complicated the decision can be as well.

Next of kin are very often the persons most anxious to end their loved one's suffering. On the other hand, physicians, who are trained to prolong life, maintain an ethical and moral, as well as a legal, obligation to sustain life and are loathe to do anything that will end life unless they are protected from all liability stemming from charges of homicide or wrongful death or violations of codes of professional responsibility. In the past, every time the question of "pulling the plug" arose it was "taken care of quietly" or ended up in court, where a judge determined if the doctor should end life support. If the judge ruled that life support could be withheld, the attending physician and the health care provider were completely protected from liability.

Obviously, this was a very inefficient method of dealing with this situation. After one or two high-profile cases, the public generally accepted "pulling the plug" as an option for the terminally ill. Where once medical practitioners and the public looked upon the act as murder, many have come to see it as merciful. This change in attitude has manifested itself, in most states, in a body of rather dark statutes falling into three specific categories, living wills, durable power of attorney, and euthanasia.

A durable power of attorney is an instrument that is similar to a living will except that it gives authority to a named individual to decide whether or not to begin or discontinue artificial life support. Any decision the holder of the durable power of attorney makes regarding life support is said to have the exact same legal effect as though the patient had made the decision himself or herself.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationState Laws and Statutes