Patients’ Rights in America

Let’s focus on Wisconsin here, as a microcosm of the morphing healthcare system that’s redefining health and care and prompting an effort to examine it all carefully.

The Wisconsin bishops released a statement warning people about the spreading use of Physician (or Provider) Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST). They did it in a carefully but clearly worded pastoral letter Upholding the Dignity of Human Life.

A POLST form presents options for treatments as if they were morally neutral. In fact, they are not. Because we cannot predict the future, it is difficult to determine in advance whether specific medical treatments, from an ethical perspective, are absolutely necessary or optional. These decisions depend upon factors such as the benefits, expected outcomes, and the risks or burdens of the treatment.

A POLST oversimplifies these decisions and bears the real risk that an indication may be made on it to withhold a treatment that, in particular circumstances, might be an act of euthanasia. Despite the possible benefits of these documents, this risk is too grave to be acceptable.

Finally, the design and use of the POLST document raises concerns as to whether it accurately reflects and protects a person’s wishes.

These have all been concerns for years in the medical/legal system, which became a riveting national debate while Terri Schiavo was being starved and dehydrated to death. It also became a discussion around a lot of family tables across the country at that time, causing a lot of media coverage of things like ‘living wills’ and a lot of Americans to rush to arrange them or sign already prepared ones that appeared online in a number of places.

Don’t do that, say the bishops and the experts at the Patients Rights Counciland Terri’s Life and Hope Network, among others.

The pastoral statement:

We encourage all persons to use a durable power of attorney for health care. For those who are age 18 or older, completing this document allows you to appoint a trusted person to make health care decisions on your behalf if a situation arises in which you cannot make these decisions for yourself. It is important to discuss your wishes and Catholic teaching with the person whom you appoint and to choose someone who will make health care decisions based on these principles.

The Patients Rights Council site is loaded with resources, for people of any state in the nation and in life and belief system. Just don’t let others take your treatment decisions away from you and determine them for you, in the absence of your advance directive. PRC’s Rita Marker told me people can get a Protective Medical Decisions Document at their site, no charge (suggested donation encouraged). More on that here.

I’ve worked for years with Terri Schiavo’s family, since they were trying to save her life and just take her home and care for her. They devoted the rest of their lives to helping other families avoid that ordeal with information and resources. And first hand relief efforts.

And still in recent years and even months and weeks, I’ve known or known of families caught in the pressure of having to make medical decisions they weren’t prepared for, wondering who had what authority (or why they didn’t have the rights they thought) while their loved ones died.

But none of them were from TMI. We can’t be too well informed.

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Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, of Chicago, is a member of the Voices editorial board, and was host of The Right Questions on Relevant Radio and Issues and Answers news show. She and her husband have two sons, one a seminarian and the other a college student. Follow updates on this story (and contact Sheila) at

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