Under Pennsylvania law, individuals who are dying have a qualified right to control the type and extent of health care treatments they receive. For most individuals, this is done before they become incapacitated, through the preparation and signing of an advance health care directive.
Generally, an advance health care directive has two sections. The one section is your living will. The other section is your health care power of attorney.
Your living will is where you instruct your medical providers to withhold life sustaining medical treatment which serves only to prolong your life if you are in the process of dying, or if you are in a state of permanent unconsciousness.
In these circumstances, your living will instructs that medical treatments be limited to those necessary to keep you comfortable and to relieve pain.
If you possess a living will, your medical providers are required to honor your instructions, or cooperate in transferring you to a medical provider who will honor your instructions.
The legislative motivation underlying the approval of living wills was the recognition that modern medical technology has progressed to the point where human life can be prolonged beyond natural limits, often causing an undignified, burdensome, and unwanted continuation of life.
Importantly, a living will does not allow mercy killing or assisted suicide. Rather, while Pennsylvania law recognizes that all adults have the right to control decisions regarding their own medical care, it also recognizes society’s right to preserve and protect human life. Therefore, your living will only allows the withholding of medical treatment which serves to prolong the process of dying. It does not allow anyone to administer any medical treatment which hurries the onset of death.
Pennsylvania law also permits your health care directive to state your preference that medical treatment be withheld if you have an advanced mental condition such as an advanced Alzheimer’s disease, an advanced dementia, or a severe brain injury.
As mentioned, an advanced health care directive has two purposes. The second purpose is to designate an individual to be your health care power of attorney agent. This person is vested with the responsibility to make medical decisions for you when you cannot.
When preparing your health care power of attorney, it is advisable to not only state a first choice as to who shall make medical treatment decisions for you when you cannot, but also a second choice in the event that your first choice cannot act in this capacity.
Lastly, the law allows any individual who is at least 18 years of age to prepare an advance health care directive. However, in order to be effective, your advance health care directive must be witnessed by at least two other adults.
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