Laws relating to medical ethics debates are generally behind medical advances.
Unfortunately, those debates often become emotional and heated, and the individuals who are affected often face the “hard questions” of ethical dilemmas while reacting to life and death 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 are based on the fact that these inalienable rights are negative rights: they are meant to prevent one person – or the government – from infringing the rights of another. Ethical laws strike a balance between seemingly conflicting rights. They prohibit or punish harmful actions, but they don’t compel a desired action against the will.
However, since there is a hierarchy of rights (the right to life trumps the right to liberty and property, liberty trumps property, etc.), there are very rare circumstances when it is appropriate for laws to compel individuals to act for the benefit of another. These laws should only go so far as to protect the life and freedom of the vulnerable patient or client, for a limited time with the goal of allowing safe transfer of the obligation to someone else.
For instance, parents are required to care for and protect their minor children since they are helpless and unable to legally consent or make contracts. And State laws require that doctors and lawyers be licensed, obtain certain levels of education, and follow specific, positive actions when they wish to withdraw from a professional relationship with or refuse the request of a patient or client.
That brings us to the controversy over the Texas Advance Directive Act of 1999 (“TADA” or “the Act”). In addition to describing “Advance Directives to Physicians” (also known as a “Living Will), TADA also attempts to outline the procedure for resolving any disagreement between a doctor and patients or their surrogates regarding medical treatments, especially concerning 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. There have actually been a few “wrongful prolongation of life” lawsuits against doctors who – knowingly or not – used CPR when the patient had a Living Will.
Most of the time, however, TADA is invoked when the attending physician “refuses” 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 his refusal to the patient or the surrogate, the rules for assisting with transfer of care to another doctor who believes the treatment request is appropriate, and asking for a medical or ethics committee to be convened at the hospital. If no other willing doctor can be found and the committee agrees with the doctor, the treatment can be withheld or withdrawn (after 10 days). During that time, full life-sustaining treatment must continue and the hospital is required to provide medical records and to actively assist in looking for another doctor and/or hospital.
The law does never allow patients to be killed by intentionally stopping breathing. The law does prohibit withholding of pain medicine or comfort care and the removal of “artificially administered nutrition and hydration.
Medical judgment is how doctors utilize our education, experience, and consciences as we plan and anticipate the effect of each medical intervention or treatment. “Life sustaining treatments are not “basic” or “usual care.” Nor are they one-time events without consequences. The interventions require a physician to administer and maintain. They must be monitored by observation and tests, and adjustments need to be made intermittently so that the treatment is effective and not harmful. They may lead to further more invasive and aggressive interventions and the need for the skills of other doctors in other specialties.
In some cases, patients and their advocates report trouble finding other doctors willing to provide the treatment that the first doctor thought was inappropriate. In my opinion, that difficulty is due to physicians’ common education and shared experiences – to medical reality, not ill intent.
Texas law is clear that only doctors may practice medicine by diagnosing and treating patients directly or “ordering” other medical personnel. Although TADA outlines specific duties for hospitals and hospital medical or ethics committees who determine whether or not the care is medically inappropriate, the process can only be invoked by the “attending physician” who is being asked to act against his medical judgment. The committee acts as a safeguard, to uphold medical ethics and the standard of medical care. In a formal meeting, the committee members review the case and either agree or disagree with the doctor as to whether he or she is correct about what is “medically inappropriate” treatment, for the patient.
Unfortunately, the Act has become known as the “Texas Futile Care Law,” and divides even the pro-life community. One side claims that doctors, hospitals and hospital committees are biased and should not be allowed to determine medically inappropriate care, and that doctors are obligated to give any and all desired treatment “until transfer.” Others want each case to go to court, where lawyers, judges and juries would settle every difference of opinion about “medically appropriate treatment.”
Ultimately, even the lawyers would need to consult doctors, unless the judges start writing orders for doctors, nurses, and medical professionals.
Our laws normally prohibit actions and only very rarely compel people to act. Under the conditions laid out in TADA, it is possible that the doctor can be forced to act against his medical judgment, but only for a limited, stated period of time. TADA is an attempt to balance conflicting rights: the patient’s wishes for medical intervention with liberty of the physician to practice medicine to the best of his judgment and conscience.