Philosophical Issues

The ethical argument that advance directives should be honored is based on the principle of patient autonomy and is a logical extension of the doctrine of informed consent. Patients with decision-making capacity have the right to refuse treatment, even if the treatment would extend their lives. Advance directives are a means for patients to continue to exercise this right, even if they lose decision-making capacity, by making thoughtful and informed decisions in advance. This approach allows patients to direct that medical care be given in a way that they feel best reflects their values and goals. Because physicians generally feel that they have an ethical obligation to work to preserve life, advance directives most commonly give patients a way to tell physicians caring for them the circumstances under which they would not want to be kept alive. On the other hand, some patients might use advance directives to indicate that they would want life-sustaining treatment, even under conditions in which most patients would choose to decline these measures.

Advance directives also serve ethical principles other than autonomy, such as beneficence. Physicians often feel duty-bound to preserve life under almost all circumstances, regardless of quality, even if they are uncertain that this serves the patient's best interests. Encouraging a patient to engage in advance care planning is a means for a physician to safeguard the patient's best interests.

A number of objections to the use of advance directives have been proposed in the literature. In a 1991 article, Alan S. Brett argued that an advance directive form cannot possibly direct the care that is to be given in a real clinical situation. If a patient writes a very general form, stating, for example, that "if I have no reasonable chance of recovery, I direct that no life-sustaining treatment be used," decision makers will have to determine how much of a chance of recovery is "reasonable," how much of a recovery would be worth trying for, and what precisely are "life-sustaining" interventions. Even if one specifies a list of treatments to be forgone in a number of detailed scenarios, this, too, creates problems. First of all, no matter how specific the document, it is unlikely to capture the circumstances of a real clinical situation exactly. Also, patients might not truly understand the specific treatments that they are listing in the document, running the risk of erroneously requesting or forgoing a treatment.

This objection is sound as far as it applies to advance directive documents, and it illustrates the need for a rich advance care planning process. Documents are inherently limited for the reasons Brett suggested. While they provide some insight into the patient's wishes, they nearly always require interpretation. If, however, the patient had engaged in discussions with doctors and proxies about his values, beliefs, and wishes, then decision makers will be in a better position to interpret a document and to make medical decisions with the patient's values in mind.

A related objection is the concern that patients can never know what they would want under conditions that they have not experienced or that they may change their minds. There is certainly reason to be cautious in this matter. Nevertheless, advance directives apply when patients have lost decision-making capacity, often for what is anticipated to be an indefinite period of time. Because these patients can no longer express their preferences, the choice is either to listen to their previous wishes about the situation or to apply some standard external to the patient (the provider's opinion or some societal consensus). Given these alternatives, it would seem most respectful to patients to rely on their previously stated wishes to make treatment decisions, unless there is good reason to believe that the patient did not understand what was written in the directive. Patients also should be told that they may change their advance directive at any time.

In a 1989 article, Rebecca Dresser and John A. Robertson raised another objection regarding whether advance directives should determine the medical care of a patient who has become demented. They believe that when one becomes severely demented, that individual may, in a sense, become a new person, no longer having the thoughts, memories, attitudes, values, and beliefs of one's "former self," who wrote the advance directive.

Now, imagine a moderately demented patient who has pneumonia. Until she developed pneumonia, she had appeared content and comfortable, chatting socially with the staff even though she is unable to recognize anyone, has severe memory loss, and needs assistance with daily activities. This woman has an advance directive stating that if she ever became moderately demented, she would not want lifesaving antibiotics for pneumonia. When she wrote the directive, she said that she would find such a life intolerable. Dresser and Robertson contended that the advance directive would have no moral authority over the new person, who now has pneumonia. Instead of relying on the values and beliefs of a person who no longer exists, a decision should be made based on what is in the best interests of the demented person in her current state. If she appears content and able to enjoy life, Dresser and Robertson argued, she ought to be treated with the antibiotics.

There is significant controversy over what to do in this instance. Accepting Dresser and Robertson's argument would mean frustrating the desires of many people who would not want the final chapter of their lives to involve being kept alive in a demented state. After all, the demented individual is not treated as a new person in any other way. She continues to have ownership of the property that she acquired when she was healthier. She continues to be responsible for any debts that she incurred previously. When she dies, the will that she wrote when she was of sound mind will be operative.

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