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Keywords:

  • Advance Directives;
  • Living Wills;
  • consent;
  • autonomy;
  • end-of-life;
  • law;
  • ethics

ABSTRACT

Advance directives (ADs), which are also sometimes referred to as ‘living wills’, are statements made by a person that indicate what treatment she should not be given in the event that she is not competent to consent or refuse at the future moment in question. As such, ADs provide a way for patients to make decisions in advance about what treatments they do not want to receive, without doctors having to find proxy decision-makers or having recourse to the doctrine of necessity. While patients can request particular treatments in an AD, only refusals are binding. This paper will examine whether ADs safeguard the autonomy and best interests of the incompetent patient, and whether legislating for the use of ADs is justified, using the specific context of the legal situation in the United Kingdom to illustrate the debate. The issue of whether the law should permit ADs is itself dependent on the issue of whether ADs are ethically justified; thus we must answer a normative question in order to answer the legislative one. It emerges that ADs suffer from two major problems, one related to autonomy and one to consent. First, ADs’ emphasis on precedent autonomy effectively sentences some people who want to live to death. Second, many ADs might not meet the standard criteria for informed refusal of treatment, because they fail on the crucial criterion of sufficient information. Ultimately, it transpires that ADs are typically only appropriate for patients who temporarily lose physical or mental capacity.