Rights of Families of Comatose Patients
By Daniel B. Evans
Copyright © 1996 Daniel B. Evans. All rights reserved.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently upheld the right of the family of a patient in a permanent vegetative state to remove life support from the patient without court approval and without a written advance health care declaration (or “living will”), provided at least two doctors agree with the decision. However, other family members, doctors, hospitals, or other interested parties who disagree with a family’s decision to remove life support can still challenge the decision in court. In re Fiori, 543 Pa. 592, 673 A.2d 905, 1996 Pa. LEXIS 551 (April 2, 1996), aff’g, 438 Pa. Super. 610, 652 A.2d 1350 (1995).
This decision will make it easier to remove life support when there is no advance health care declaration. However, the decision only applies to patients in a “permanent vegetative state,” while an advance health care declaration would allow a family to terminate life support or other medical treatments when the patient is suffering from a terminal condition (an incurable and irreversible medical condition that will result in death), but not in a “permanent vegetative state”. Another advantage to an advance health care declaration is that it make your wishes known and can reduce the possibility of disputes within your family or between your family and your doctors.