Living wills should be a priority now
April 8, 2005
AUGUSTA - The recent tragedy surrounding Terri Schiavo’s death in Florida has led many people to begin questioning their own end-of-life wishes. No matter your position in the debate, I think we all agree that it was unfortunate that a private family matter instead became a media circus. The good that came from that situation is that more people have been made aware of the importance of living wills. I thought it might be useful to take a small break from my usual columns to tell you about the laws on this subject here in Maine.
Even though my wife is a nurse, I have to confess that I do not have a living will, nor had I thought much about it before witnessing the Schiavo family tragedy. But like lots of other Americans, I’m now seriously considering what I would want my family to do if I was ever in such a situation like that.
Living wills are sometimes called advance directives or health care powers of attorney, and they are the best way to indicate your intentions to loved ones. As a lawmaker, I was very interested watching the news reports about the Florida courts, and wondered what Maine’s laws were on these matters.
Maine has also been through cases like this, though less high profile. Our state Supreme Court has handed down decisions, in 1987 and 1990, that permitted the removal of feeding tubes for two young men who were brain damaged with no hope of recovery. In both cases, the patients had not written down their intentions, but had expressed their desire not to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state to friends and family members.
In 1995, legislators in Maine enacted a law that actually provides a form called an advance health care directive, basically a living will. The form is very thorough, but I know when I looked at it, I suddenly realized that it considered far more than I had thought about before.
It first asks you to designate an agent to make health care decisions for you, and provide contact information as well as two alternate agents. The agents need to sign the form, they only become necessary once a physician determines you are no longer able to make health care decisions for yourself.
From there, the form moves into your choices about prolonging life, and artificial nutrition and hydration—a feeding tube. It also asks you to specify in cases you would like relief from pain, even if that contributes to death. As the form continues, it asks you to consider any other wishes, and includes a space for organ donation.
A primary physician is designated on the form, as well as an alternate should your physician be unavailable. Finally, you sign the form and have it witnessed by two other people. Judges will look at this document first, should your wishes ever be questioned by family members.
Without an advance health care directive, the court would appoint a family member or surrogate to make decisions, usually a spouse. The spouse is relied upon to express your wishes, unless his or her evidence of your wishes can be discredited.
The advance health care directive is a legal document, but you don’t need a lawyer to make one. The form itself is available online at the Maine Attorney General’s Web site at http://www.maine.gov/ag/?r=healthissues. Click on the section about end of life care for the form and more information about making decisions in the event you are incapacitated. It has some excellent resources that you should review before filling out the form. The site also suggests other planning options, like who would take care of your minor children and whether at-home hospice care should be considered at the end of life.
As we saw in the Schiavo case, a living will is just as important as a regular will. We always tend to think more about our property and assets for the end of lives, and not enough about what we really want for ourselves. The wonderful spring weather is calling me outdoors, but I know I need to have an important talk with my family first. I hope you’ll all do the same.
I may be contacted for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my legislative Web page, http://www.mainehousedems.org/mbryant .
Read more news from the House Democrats