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Publication Date

Winter 1987




Cambridge University Press




Since the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, legal actions regarding the dying have become commonplace. Unfortunately, so has legal misinformation, misapplication, fantasy, and inhumanity. We seem to have frightfully underestimated the ability of lawyers to focus on trivia and self protection, and to ignore the basic human rights of dying persons. As the authors of the Hasting Center's Guidelines declare in the introduction:

Hospital legal counsel, lawyers serving other health care institutions, and legal advisors to individual health care professionals have a critical role to play in seeing that medicine is not driven by law, and health care professionals are not preoccupied by legal concerns. These lawyers need to educate themselves fully on the law concerning termination of treatment. They must then educate health care professionals about the law, eliminating misinformation that is now rampant, and creating an atmosphere in which health care professionals can practice medicine without also trying to practice law. (p. 4)

More than a decade ago, hospital lawyers in Massachusetts reacted to the Saikewicz decision by encouraging physicians to take actions for "legal protection" that caused extensive, needless pain and suffering to the hospitalized dying. Legal advice based on ignorance, fear, or indifference made many health professionals cynical of the law. It would be encouraging to report, after ten years of conferences, publications, and discussions, that lawyers have become more familiar with the law, and have been able to assure their physician clients that so long as they act consistent with good medical practice and with their patient's informed consent they have fulfilled their legal obligations. Unfortunately, misconceptions about the law and the role of legal counsel abound, patients continue to suffer needlessly as a result, and physicians (perhaps more than ever) view the law as irrational and destructive.

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