THE BATTLE TO DIE WITH DIGNITY Surprise man’s death puts spotlight on bureaucractic mess, confusing law

The above headline appeared in The Arizona Republic on March 24, 2002. The article under the headline described a terminally ill man whose wife and son disconnected his life support at his insistence. After the man’s death, the Surprise, Arizona police and the Maricopa County Attorney conducted a lengthy inquiry. The County Attorney ultimately declined to prosecute.

Granted, what happened to the family described in the article shouldn’t happen to anyone. Had they been equipped with a living will and a health care power of attorney prepared and executed according to the specific directions of Arizona law, however, they probably could have avoided the situation.

Despite the above headline, there need not be a “bureaucratic mess,” nor is the law confusing when it comes to making and implementing a living will and a health care power of attorney. The Arizona statutes that specify how these documents are to be prepared and executed make it very clear what they can include, how they are to be signed, and how to have them correctly witnessed and notarized.

The statutes are also quite clear that health care providers and others who make good faith decisions as directed or authorized under a valid living will or health care power of attorney are immune from being held financially or criminally responsible for the consequences of those decisions. To put it simply, it is not a crime or grounds for a lawsuit to carry out a living will that says to withhold or withdraw life support. The one situation that is not clearly covered by the current statutes is when a person acting under a health care power of attorney who is not a health care provider actually disconnects the life support system of the person who has directed or authorized such action. That area of uncertainty is probably what caused the situation described in the March 24 Arizona Republic article.

But had the man described in the article gone to the hospital with a living will and a health care power of attorney executed as specified by law, he should have had no difficulty in getting his instructions carried out. Another choice that should have been available to him would be to return to the doctor who placed him on the life support systems and ask the doctor to carry out his instructions as specified in his living will. If that doctor was unwilling for reasons of conscience to carry out the patient’s instructions, the law provides for the doctor to so inform the patient and refer the patient to a doctor who is willing to carry out the patient’s instructions.

The law in matters of “right to die” is still not absolutely clear in all circumstances. Much progress has been made, however, in clarifying the methods by which a patient’s desire to refuse medical treatment can be made legally enforceable. A living will and a health care power of attorney that are drafted, signed and witnessed according to the specific guidelines of Arizona law are effective in virtually all circumstances. Anyone who wants to have the ability to refuse medical treatment can and should make those desires known, and make them enforceable with a living will and a health care power of attorney.