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The Debate over Living Wills

April 13, 2015 General

Pennsylvania Woman Charged with Assisting with Father’s Death

After her 93-year-old father drank prescribed morphine, Pennsylvania resident Barbara Mancini “sat down next to him..[and]started to talk. Her father, who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness just months prior, was taking small doses of morphine to manage the pain caused by his illness. He had given his daughter medical power of attorney and had specifically instructed her that he did not want to go to a hospital. After witnessing him ingest the morphine, she chose not to call a hospital or medical personnel, saying that would be “expressly against his wish.”

When a hospice nurse came to her father’s house that same day, Mancini told her what her father had done. The hospice agency called police, who came to the residence and arrested Mancini, charging her under Pennsylvania law with illegally assisting a suicide. She faces 10 years in prison if convicted.

The potential consequences for Mancini differ dramatically from those for similar individuals in Oregon, where a specific statute permits assisted suicide, and Montana and New Mexico, where courts have ruled that assisted suicide is legal under existing laws. They also illustrate that, regardless of what you say in a medical directive or living will, your wishes may not be honored if police or prosecutors determine that doing so would be against the law. In fact, say advocates for “death with dignity” laws, most living wills have little legal impact. They can request that certain actions not be taken, but they are not a legal mandate.

In the Mancini case, her father was rushed to the hospital, where he was treated with a drug designed to reverse the effect of the morphine. Mancini said that he “woke up” in the emergency room, livid that measures had been taken to revive him. He tried to pull out his IV, as well as the wires for his heart monitor. He died four days later.

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