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Brittany Maynard Raises Public Awareness About End-of-Life Care

Brittany Maynard knew she was going to die. In early 2014, she had been diagnosed with brain cancer. By the spring, medical experts overseeing her care estimated she had just six more months to live. Rather than allow the cancer to fully run its course, Maynard took her own life during the first weekend in November.

It was a decision that reignited an ongoing debate in the United States over the right to die, largely because Maynard herself sought to use her final days raising awareness about the death-with-dignity movement. Her story appeared in several national media outlets, including The Washington Post and CBS News.

Physician-Assisted Suicide Not Allowed in Florida

Maynard, who grew up in California, moved to Oregon in order to get the help of a medical doctor in ending her life. That’s because only five states currently allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide: Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont, according to the website, FinalExit.org. Florida, you’ll notice, is not on that list.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide fear the practice will open the door to mistakes and abuse. The American Medical Association has taken the position that allowing doctors to participate in hastening a patient’s death in this way is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.” The AMA opinion, which is incorporated into its Code of Ethics, stresses “multidisciplinary interventions” for terminally ill patients that include hospice care, family counseling, and pain control.

Florida Law Provides for Advanced Directives

While Florida law does not currently permit physician-assisted suicide, the state does allow patients to make decisions regarding the kind of medical treatment they wish to endure should they become incapacitated – and how extensive the medical intervention should be. Those decisions are spelled out in legal documents known as advanced directives.

Three common types of advanced directives are living wills, durable power of attorney, and health care surrogate designation. The Florida Bar Association offers an online guide outlining each of them.

A living will may direct the patient’s family and physician to withdraw procedures that only serve to artificially prolong the process of dying when the patient is in an end-stage condition or a persistent vegetative state. Florida law also allows competent adults to designate a health care surrogate, that is, someone who is legally authorized to make medical decisions based on what the patient would want if the patient is incapacitated. A durable power of attorney is another way of authorizing someone to act on the patient’s behalf; the power of attorney can be quite broad in its scope, or it can be limited to certain specific acts.

Legal Expertise Highly Recommended

In order for any of these documents to be legally effective, however, the maker must comply with certain formalities. There’s more to it than many consumers think. For example, a living will must be signed in the presence of two witnesses, and at least one of the witnesses must be a non-relative.

That’s why it’s important to contact an experienced attorney who can guide you through the process of making a living will, designating a health care surrogate, or executing a durable power of attorney. Although these topics can be difficult to discuss, having these delicate conversations now can help give your family a sense of peace later.

At the Law Offices of Larry E. Bray, P.A., we can help you decide which types of advanced directives are right for you based on your financial and healthcare situation. Contact us at our Lake Worth, Boca Raton, or West Palm Beach office to schedule an appointment.

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