Laws relating to ethics debates are generally behind medical advances. This is good because it means that there *are* medical advances.
However, the debates often become emotional and heated, and the individuals who are affected face real dilemmas and emergencies. When law-making is controversial, it’s best to go back to the basics of ethics for guidance: the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the Declaration of Independence, and Constitution.
All laws limit our rights, but good laws strike a balance between seemingly conflicting rights: they are meant to prevent one person from harming another. Most laws prohibit or punish harmful actions, they don’t *compel* a desired action against our will. Nor do they prohibit actions based on thoughts and opinion. In other words, laws prohibit harming or taking from another, but they usually don’t make you protect, nurture or give to another.
However,since the right to life trumps the right to liberty and property, there are very rare circumstances when it is appropriate for laws to compel individuals to act for the benefit of another. Parents are required to care for and protect their minor children. Doctors and lawyers must be licensed, obtain certain levels of education, and follow specific, positive actions when they wish to withdraw from a professional relationship with a patient or client. These laws should only go so far as to protect the life and safety of the vulnerable, for a limited time with the goal of allowing safe transfer of the obligation of the person with more power to someone else.
On Tuesday, March 19, 2013, the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee, under Chair Senator Jane Nelson, heard testimony on two Bills that would change TADA: SB 303 from Senator (Dr.) Bob Duell’s and SB 675 by Senator Kelly Hancock.
The Texas Advance Directive Act of 1999 (TADA), in addition to describing “Advance Directives to Physicians” (a “Living Will), was an attempt to outline the procedure for resolving the disagreement between a doctor and patients or their surrogates regarding end of life care.
When I first read the Act, I (naively) thought it was malpractice protection for doctors who did not want to withdraw or withhold care, such as the Houston Methodist Hospital doctors who invoked the act when they repaired Dr. Michael Debakey’s aortic aneurysm against his previously stated wishes – http://www.theheart.org/article/762619.do – in 2006.
Most of the time, however, TADA is invoked in cases when the attending physician disagrees with a request to actively administer medical treatment that he or she believes is medically inappropriate. The steps laid out in the law involve the doctor’s notification of the patient or the surrogate, rules for assisting with transfer of care to another doctor who believes the treatment request is appropriate, and convening an ethics committee at the hospital. If there is no other willing doctor can be found and the ethics committee agrees with the doctor, the treatment can be withheld or withdrawn. It does not allow patients to be killed by medicines.
Unfortunately, the Act has become known as the “Texas Futile Care Law,” and divides even the pro-life community. One side says doctors and hospitals have too much power and are killing people. While I’ve heard horror stories about doctors who have abused or broken the law, I maintain that there is no “Futile Care Law,” only a difference of opinion as to who should decide what is medically appropriate treatment. In the few cases that have come under the Act, patients and their advocates report trouble finding other doctors willing to provide the treatment the first doctor thought was inappropriate. In my opinion, that difficulty is due to physicians’ common education and shared experiences.
Although TADA lays out requirements for hospitals and hospital medical ethics committees, the fact is that it applies to the “attending physician” who could be forced to act against his conscience. Texas law is clear that only doctors may practice medicine by diagnosing and treating patients directly or “ordering” other medical personnel. These treatments are not one-time events and they aren’t without consequences. They are interventions that must be monitored by observation and tests, and adjustments need to be made so that the treatment is effective and not harmful. Medical judgment is how doctors utilize our education, experience, and consciences as we plan and anticipate the effect of each medical intervention.
Senator Duell’s Bill, SB 303, significantly improves TADA. Among other things, the Bill would add protection of the patient’s right to artificially administered hydration and nutrition, increased access to assistance, records, and time before and after the ethics committee meeting, and prohibits so-called “secret DNR’s.”
Senator Hancock’s Bill, SB 675, focuses on the intentions and motives of the doctor, requiring the medical committee to decide whether the disagreement is due to: “(1) the lesser value the physician, facility, or professional places on extending the life of an elderly, disabled, or terminally ill patient compared to the value of extending the life of a patient who is younger, not disabled, or not terminally ill; or “(2) a disagreement between the physician, facility, or professional and the patient, or the person authorized to make a treatment decision for the patient under Section 166.039, over the greater weight the patient or person places on extending the patient ’s life above the risk of disability.”
Our laws normally prohibit actions and only very rarely compel people to act. Under the conditions laid out in SB 303, the doctor can be forced to act against his conscience and best medical judgment, but only for a limited, stated time. SB 303 improves the Texas Advance Directive Act by protecting the patient’s access to artificially administered hydration and nutrition. It also adds time to prepare for the ethics committee meeting and to transfer care a new doctor. It is an attempt to balance the patient’s wishes for medical intervention with the right of conscience of the doctor. In contrast, SB 675 would attempt to legislate intentions or thoughts, with none of the added protections of SB 303.
Edited 4/27/13 to fix the link to the article about Dr. Debakey and 4/30/13 for grammar and formatting – BBN.