The American Feminist
The Will to Live
When Marjorie Nighbert entered a nursing home after having a stroke, she did not expect to be starved to death, but that is what happened when she became a victim of her own "wishes."
Like many people, she did not want her life to be prolonged when death was imminent. So Nighbert created a durable power of attorney (DPA), in which she gave her brother control over medical decisions in case she could not make them for herself. And according to the family lawyer, Nighbert said she did not want a feeding tube if she became terminally ill.
When Nighbert fell ill the nursing home followed the orders of the DPA and denied her food and water for two weeks. But then something unexpected happened: She asked to be fed. A court battle ensued, and the court ultimately upheld the nursing home's decision to deny Nighbert food and water. According to the judge, Nighbert was not competent to ask for food, and to give her food would constitute "extraordinary means."
Nighbert died on April 6, 1995.
In recent years we have heard a lot about the "right to die." Many organizations, such as Choice in Dying, and even President Clinton, promote living wills as a way for people to control when and how they will die. Yet, as Nighbert's story illustrates, nothing could be further from the truth: Many people sign living wills without realizing that they may be signing their own death certificates.
The inherent danger in the living will is that the terms in the document may not mean what a person thinks they mean or they may be dangerously vague. Webster's Dictionary defines "terminal" as "of or in the final stages of a fatal disease." Similarly, the average person thinks that "terminally ill" means that death cannot be prevented even with medical treatment. But in 24 states, for the purposes of the living will, a person is legally in a "terminal condition" even if her life could be saved by medical treatment, as long as she would still have a permanent disability of some kind. In fact, many living wills stipulate that "life-sustaining" treatment, including food and water, will not be administered if the person is in a "terminal" condition, even if the condition is non-fatal.
The purpose of any medical treatment is to sustain, if not prolong, life. Unfortunately, many people who sign living wills may be completely unaware that they are agreeing to their own starvation.
The issue at hand is not about keeping people alive at all cost simply because the medical technology is available; the issue is about protecting people who are being denied medical treatment and being starved to death merely because they are ill. What kind of message does this send to the infirm? Instead of creating a society where the sick are treated with compassion and care, we are creating an atmosphere of death.
To prevent people from suffering the same fate as Marjorie Nighbert, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) has created the Will to Live. This differs from the living will by being based on a general presumption for life. It is also much more detailed to avoid ambiguities that could later be interpreted in favor of death. Currently, the Will to Live is complete for fourteen states: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. The other states are in various stages of preparation and will be completed soon.
If you would like a Will
to Live for one of the states mentioned, send a business size, self-
addressed, stamped envelope to:
The Will to Live ProjectAnne E. Brennan
Reprinted from The American Feminist, Winter 1995/1996