NYCLU Urges Legislature to Let Families Make Medical Decisions for Incapacitated Patients

March 29, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — One year after Terri Schiavo’s husband won his fight to honor his wife’s wishes by removing her feeding tube, the New York Civil Liberties Union called upon legislative leaders to put health care decisions in families’ hands by passing the Family Health Care Decisions Act.

“Our current law bars an incapacitated patient’s loved ones from making medical decisions on her behalf,” said Elisabeth Benjamin, Director of the Reproductive Rights Project of the NYCLU. “Disregarding a family’s wishes can delay a patient’s treatment, compromising her well-being and adding significantly to the cost of her care. Alternatively, it can put her at risk of being subjected to burdensome, highly invasive, and extended medical treatment that violates her wishes, values or religious beliefs. It’s time for the legislature to put an end to this wrong by passing a law that empowers family members to refuse or advocate for life-sustaining treatment.”

In a letter sent today to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, the NYCLU urged the legislature to pass the Family Health Care Decisions Act (FHCDA) which would allow family members or others close to incapacitated patients to make health care decisions for those patients, the vast majority of whom have not signed advanced care directives.

The bill requires that all treatment decisions are consistent with the incapacitated patient’s wishes — including religious or moral beliefs. In the event these wishes are not known, the bill requires that treatment decisions be made in the best interest of the patient. The legislation includes numerous safeguards to ensure sound medical treatment that protects the patients’ rights.

“New York is one of two states that have failed to update their laws to allow the closest to us — and who best know our wishes, beliefs and values — to participate in our medical treatment decisions if we are incapacitated,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “This legislation would bring the state into the twenty-first century.”

More than 10 years ago, a New York State Task Force comprised of nationally recognized, nonpartisan experts — health care providers, patients’ rights advocates, clergy, attorneys and bio-ethicists — issued recommendations that would bring New York law on health-care decision-making into line with the majority of states. The Family Health Decisions Act incorporates the Task Force recommendations, which advised that family members and others close to the patient should have the authority to make treatment decisions for incapacitated patients who have not signed a health-care proxy or left specific oral or written instructions.

New York and Missouri are the only two states in the country that do not have laws or procedures to permit surrogate decision-making in these contexts.

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