Life and Death Decisions

Updated: August 9, 2023

We’ve previously discussed the importance of making decisions about the end of your life ahead of time, but what about decisions about your death? Your priorities for as the end of your life nears may be quite different from those you have had previously and from what your family would want. Even if you are very ill, everyone needs to know that the final decision about your care is yours so long as you are able. This may require you to be assertive about what your wishes are.

While your healthcare providers may know what is best for your medical condition, only you know what is best for your overall well-being. This includes the choice to refuse further medical care. You may even consider asserting your right to die, if you live in a state that allows medical aid in dying.

If you have granted your Healthcare Proxy the ability to make life and death decisions, much of this section will apply to them as well.

Enough Is Enough, No More Treatment

When you are ready, you can make the important decision that it is time to stop or refuse new treatments for your condition and focus on making your end of life more comfortable. This may include stopping life-sustaining treatments, such as dialysis, tube feeding, or IVs if you are not able to eat or drink.

There are many reasons you may feel your current care is no longer needed or wanted. The care may be:

  • No longer working or not working well enough to make a significant difference in quality of life;
  • Doing more harm than good, such as being too uncomfortable or sedated to enjoy things; 
  • Needlessly prolonging your illness and pain;
  • Keeping you in the hospital or other facility and limiting your ability to be with family;
  • Chronic medications that don’t make sense anymore, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs;
  • Too expensive for the benefit they provide; and/or
  • Against your faith or other beliefs.

After you have committed to your decision, talk to your healthcare providers. They may be able to help you understand the realities of your situation and assist you with the decision, give you their medical advice on alternate treatment and your prognosis, provide you with the options for comfort or palliative care, and/or possibly help explain your choice to your family.

You must then take the difficult step of talking to your family and caregivers about how you would like to experience your final days. Each person will react differently to this, but you can reassure them this is what is best for you. You may need to prevail upon them that only you can make such choices about your end of life care and it is solely your right to do so.

If you think your healthcare provider will be reluctant, it may be better to work things out with your family first and then speak with your provider as a united front. It is a deeply personal choice, and you are the best one to decide which approach may work better for your situation.

Once you have made your choice, have your healthcare providers’ support, and, hopefully, have the blessing of your loved ones, work with them to settle on the most compassionate and appropriate care that will make your remaining days as comfortable and fulfilling as possible. Some call this process “Dying Well.”

The Hospice/Palliative Care and Seeking Emotional Support and Grief Counseling sections will have details on the types of care available to you to make the most of your last days.

It is your right to make the final decision on any treatment you are offered, but the choice to stop or refuse treatment of a terminal illness is often resisted by healthcare providers and family. When this happens you should be sensitive to their position, but also advocate for your right to decide how to experience the end of your life. Although this is not a debate, communication is the key.

While it is ultimately your call, it will be best if everyone is on the same page. It may be a gradual process. To be sensitive to their position, you must first listen carefully to what they say so you know what points you have to make. Do research if you have to, but the most important thing is to tell them that this is about your wishes and what is best for you.

Physician-Assisted Suicide

You may reach a point where you just want it to end, but merely stopping treatment will not result in your immediate death. You may want your physician to help you die by prescribing medications to cause your death; physician-assisted suicide — as opposed to euthanasia where the healthcare provider administers the medication. Only you can request this; your Healthcare Proxy cannot under any circumstances. As you can imagine, it is very controversial.

While people with a painful terminal condition may eventually find pain medication ineffective, they are rarely among those who request physician-assisted death, nor are those who have intractable suffering for other reasons or are experiencing depression. The most common feelings associated with the desire for death are a loss of dignity, the inability to experience any joy or pleasure, and a loss of control of their lives.

In states with physician-assisted death, frequently referred to as “medical aid in dying,” it is a strictly controlled process that protects both you and your physician from abuse or liability. The paperwork alone can be a hurdle, but there are safeguards in place, with little variation among states where it is legal.

These are the measures most states have to assure that physician-assisted death is right for you.

  • Not only must you have a terminal condition, the condition must be confirmed by both your attending physician and a consulting physician, not responding to appropriate treatment, and predicted to be fatal within 6 months.
  • You must be deemed mentally capable of understanding the decision. Although you may not need a formal evaluation, many physicians will request this if they are not absolutely sure of it.
  • While depression is normal when you have a terminal illness, you cannot make the decision if you have major depression or other diagnosed mental illness, as it may interfere with your ability to make appropriate decisions. Your primary physician may or may not request a consultation with another physician or hospice to confirm this.
  • The prescribing doctor must confirm that you are not being coerced or unduly influenced by others when making the request.
  • You will need to make the request at least twice 15 or more days apart to confirm your resolve. Your final request must be in writing, use a state-specific form, and be signed by two witnesses, who can’t be beneficiaries in any will or trust.
  • You must be able to administer the medication to yourself. It is considered murder for ANYONE else to give it to you.
  • You must be informed of any alternative treatment that may prevent you from needing the lethal medication, including care to relieve pain and keep you comfortable.
  • You will be asked to notify your next of kin of the prescription request, although you are not required to.
  • You can withdraw your request at any time before your request is granted.

In states where this is legal and you meet the requirements, your physician can prescribe a medication that will quickly result in your death, although it does not always happen this way.

Although your physician makes the determination whether or not you will get the prescription, once you have it you then have the choice of taking it when the time comes. It is illegal for family members to coerce or otherwise force you to take it before you are ready. It is also against the law to give away your medication to someone else, even if they have a terminal illness. About two-thirds of people who get the prescription will eventually make the choice to take it. For the remainder that do not, it is often enough to know that they are in charge of their experience and have the option available to them.

Not all physicians are comfortable with providing aid in dying. Even those physicians who do this willingly can have mixed feelings and experience guilt. If yours is not supportive, rather than trying to urge them to do so, you should seek out a physician who is willing to assist you.

There are studies that show that stopping eating and drinking or sedation may be a more comfortable and peaceful way to die.

Before proceeding with this process, there are things to consider about suicide which might affect your decision.

  • What will be the effect on contracts, wills, insurance, and annuity policies?
  • There are usually immunities, liabilities, and exceptions that allow your healthcare provider to decline your request.
  • There may be claims against your estate for costs incurred by the government if you ingest the covered medication in public.
  • There may be criminal penalties if the provisions of the law are not followed precisely, but they are difficult to enforce.

In 2006, the Supreme Court chose to make the legality of physician-assisted death a state matter (Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243). As of June 1, 2021, ten states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that allow physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients. Thirteen states have pending legislation, up from three a year ago. Each state has slightly different rules about which patients qualify.

Arizona – Pending
California – In Effect
Colorado – In Effect
Connecticut – Pending
District of Columbia – In Effect
Hawaii – In Effect
Indiana – Pending
Iowa – Pending

Kansas – Pending
Kentucky – Pending
Minnesota – Pending
Maine – In Effect
Massachusetts – Pending
Montana – In Effect
New Jersey – In Effect
New Mexico – In Effect

New York – Pending
North Dakota – Pending
Oregon – In Effect
Pennsylvania – Pending
Rhode Island – Pending
Vermont – In Effect
Virginia – Pending
Washington – In Effect

Many others are working on legislation, while about half of the states are not. You can go to Death with Dignity Acts (Updated: April 16, 2020), Death With Dignity Laws in Your State, End-of-Life Choice in Your State, and State-By-State Death With Dignity Legislation to find out what your state is doing. 

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