I. Glenn Cohen Discusses Ethics of Medical Personnel Involvement in Executions

cohen_talking_peoplePetrie-Flom Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show last night to discuss his recent opinion piece in JAMA, coauthored with Robert D. Truog and Mark A. Rockoff (both of Harvard Medical School), on “Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection.” In the piece, Cohen et al. argue that medical specialty boards should withdraw board certification from members who participate in executions.

From the interview:

…we think it [execution] is totally incompatible with the role of the doctor. A doctor is about healing. A doctor is about soothing pain. A doctor is not meant to be conscripted by the state to make what is the involuntary killing of another person look as though it’s a medical procedure, like getting your teeth pulled or putting your dog to sleep. It’s kabuki theater, Rachel, and we think doctors should stand up. Whatever your position is on capital punishment, it’s wrong to make this procedure look like medicine. That’s not what it is. [...]

Watch the full interview.

Doctors, Lethal Injection, and Firing Squads

Yesterday JAMA published a new perspective I co-wrote with Bob Truog and Mark Rockoff  “Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection“. In that article we make the case that the recommendations coming out of the Oklahoma botched lethal injection executions to require physician involvement would force physicians into an untenable medical ethical position. We also argue that it supports a kind of kabuki theater of medicalization, where execution becomes normalized.

Now comes a news report of a Utah lawmaker pushing to give those set to be executed the option of firing squad which he views as more humane than lethal injection. Many people will no doubt recoil at this notion. But here is my intentionally provocative question (and this is on my behalf not my co-authors): If you are in favor of capital punishment, wouldn’t a single close range shot to the head as a form of execution be, in some ways, more defensible than lethal injection? If you recoil at the notion of this being a way of doing execution, have you perhaps fallen for the kabuki theater of medicalization? Why not choose a method of execution that is more honest about the gravity (and perhaps the horror) of what we are doing rather than present something as somewhere on a continuum with sedation?

New op-ed on doctors and the death penalty, coauthored by I. Glenn Cohen

Petrie-Flom Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen has coauthored a new opinion piece now available through JAMA, “Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection.” From the article:

In the wake of the recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma, however, a group of eminent legal professionals known as the Death Penalty Committee of The Constitution Project has published a sweeping set of 39 recommendations that not only tinker with, but hope to fix, the multitude of problems that affect this method of capital punishment.

Many of the recommendations this committee makes with regard to legal and administrative reforms appear worthwhile and reasonable. Their final recommendation, however, concerns the role of the medical profession in performing lethal injection. It states: “Jurisdictions should ensure that qualified medical personnel are present at executions and responsible for all medically-related elements of executions.”

In particular, the recommendation specifies that “Execution team members…are licensed, practicing doctors, nurses or emergency medical technicians who are responsible for performing functions in their day-to-day practice that are similar to those they will perform at the execution.” Regardless of this committee’s recommendations, physician participation in capital punishment is an ethical dilemma that the profession of medicine must address.

Read the full article.

Art Caplan on “Pediatric Euthanasia in Belgium: Disturbing Developments”

Art Caplan has coauthored a new piece in JAMA on problems with Belgium’s new law allowing terminally-ill children and their families to choose euthanasia. From the article:

The Belgian pediatric euthanasia law seeks to respect the moral status of children as agents who possess the nascent capacity for self-determination. Specifically, the law requires the medical team to demonstrate a patient has the “capacity for discernment,” indicating that he or she understands the consequences of a choice for euthanasia.

What the law does not consider, however, is that adults choose euthanasia for reasons that go beyond pain. For adults, the decision to end their life can be based upon the fear of a loss of control, not wanting to burden others, or the desire not to spend their final days of life fully sedated. These desires might be supported by the experience they have had witnessing a loved one express a loss of dignity or because they understand what terminal sedation is and wish to refuse it. Children, however, lack the intellectual capacity to develop a sophisticated preference against palliative interventions of last resort. Instead, in the case of the new Belgian law, children seem to be asked to choose between unbearable suffering on the one hand and death on the other.

This possibility causes the Belgian euthanasia law to fall short of the standard required for valid assent. The criterion related to the “capacity for discernment” runs the risk of ignoring the fact that children and adolescents lack the experiential knowledge and sense of self that adults often invoke—rightly or wrongly—at the end of their lives.

Read the full article.

Advance Directives, Rights, and Brain Death Pregnancies

Dr. Jeffrey Ecker, a noted fetal medicine specialist, has an excellent piece on the Munoz case in Texas in a recent NEJM article (“Death in Pregnancy—An American Tragedy”).[1]   He shares the widespread view that brain dead pregnant women should not be maintained over the father or family’s objections.  He does, however, suggest that maintenance may occur with family consent to enable the fetus be born with the best chance of survival.

The burden of his comment is on legal issues and rights.  Because Texas recognizes brain death as legal death, the hospital had acted inappropriately when it relied on the Texas advance directive statute, which limits advance directives when a woman is pregnant, to maintain her over her husband’s wishes. The court ruled that since Ms Munoz was brain dead, the advance directive limitation which applies only to patients who are still alive, did not apply to a pregnant patient who was dead under cardiopulmonary or brain death criteria for death.  His comment deserves laurels for its clear presentation of the statutory conflict and its resolution.

Dr. Ecker, however, like many other commentators, runs into trouble when he says that the hospital’s actions in the Munoz case, even if supported by statute  are “a wrongful usurpation of the rights of individuals,  in this case  … women.”[2]  The problem is his the assumption that there is or should be a constitutional or legal right at Time 1 when competent to issue a legally binding directive at Time 2 when the maker is incompetent and indeed may have a different set of interests or none at all.

But there is no constitutional right to make a directive at Time 1 that binds at Time 2.  Justice Sandra O’Connor concurring in the outcome in Cruzan mentioned a possible 14th Amendment right to appoint a health care proxy to make a decision at Time 2, but no other justice joined her.[3]  Indeed, a constitutional right to make future directives that bind oneself directly or through an agent has no constitutional precedent and poses many problems.

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Quantifying Causes of Mortality and the Relative Burden of Disease

By Michael J. Young

“Mortis effare ordinem et serva vivos”

(State the facts of the death and serve the living)

It was with this incisive charge that Dr. Mark Flomenbaum concluded his lecture on forensic pathology to my medical school class on the final day of our first-year pathology course.

I was reminded of this teaching moment earlier this week when I came across a study recently published in the journal Neurology which found that the annual mortality rate from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) could be nearly six times greater than has previously been reported by the CDC from information gathered from death certificates.  “Deaths from AD,” the authors conclude, “far exceed the numbers reported by the CDC and may be closer in magnitude to the number of deaths reported for heart disease and cancer.”   Were the facts of death in the underreported cases simply misstated?

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American, Georgetown, and Hamline Law Offer Summer 2014 Health Law Courses

American University Washington College of Law’s seventh annual Health Law & Policy Summer Institute will run from June 16 to June 28. The Institute’s flexible schedule includes day, evening, and online courses focusing on: (1) pharmaceutical law, (2) bioethics, (3) health care fraud and compliance, and (4) the economics of health care reform.

The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University is pleased to present two programs this summer: (1) Emerging Issues in Food and Drug Law and (2) U.S. Health Reform – The Affordable Care Act.  Now in its third year, the Summer Programs will convene leading practitioners, policymakers, advocates and academics in global food and drug law and US health reform for a series of interactive lectures, panel discussions, and case studies.  Held during consecutive weeks, July 14-18 (Emerging Issues in Food and Drug Law) and July 21-25 (US Health Reform – The Affordable Care Act), interested participants may attend one or both programs.  Additional details, including schedule, speakers, online application, and program fees may be found here.  Questions may be directed to oneillsummer@law.georgetown.edu.

The Hamline University School of Law Health Law Institute is pleased to offer a variety of condensed health law courses taught by academic and industry experts in Saint Paul, MN. Courses include: (1) Health Care Compliance Institute, (2) Biotechnology Policy, (3) Elder Law, and (4) Health Care Fraud and Abuse. Courses will run from May 27th through June 28th. Additional information, including the application and course descriptions can be found here.

 

TOMORROW: Frances Kamm’s Bioethical Prescriptions: Book Talk and Panel Discussion

Please join us on February 27 at 2:00pm in Wasserstein 1019 at the Harvard Law School as we launch Professor Frances Kamm’s latest book, Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives (Oxford University Press, January 2014). The book showcases Professor Kamm’s articles on bioethics as parts of a coherent whole, with sections devoted to death and dying; early life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); genetics and other enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); allocating scarce resources; and methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Panelists include:

  • Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University; Former Senior Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Thomas (Tim) Scanlon, Jr., Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

This event is free and open to the public. For questions, please contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and BioethicsEdmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

2/27: Frances Kamm’s Bioethical Prescriptions: Book Talk and Panel Discussion

Please join us on February 27 at 2:00pm in Wasserstein 1019 at the Harvard Law School as we launch Professor Frances Kamm’s latest book, Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives (Oxford University Press, January 2014). The book showcases Professor Kamm’s articles on bioethics as parts of a coherent whole, with sections devoted to death and dying; early life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); genetics and other enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); allocating scarce resources; and methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Panelists include:

  • Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University; Former Senior Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Thomas (Tim) Scanlon, Jr., Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

This event is free and open to the public. For questions, please contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics; Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Are We Misusing the “Brain Death” Diagnosis to Hurry Along Families?

Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog. Originally posted January 20, 2014.

What are We Learning About Brain Death from the McMath and Munoz cases?

By Jennifer S. Bard, J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.

With the understanding that this is one of those topics that health law professors are supposed to know something about, here is a quick update of what’s going on.  Along with my own views about the possible misuse by hospitals of declaring brain death in what are really medical futility cases.

Jahi McMath, age 12, in California who lost consciousness after a routine tonsillectomy and Marlize Munoz, age 32  in Texas who collapsed on her kitchen floor have both become involuntary public figures as their families struggle to make sense of both their medical conditions, which are complex, and of the laws which have declared them both legally dead based on a lack of brain activity.  In legal terms, a person declared “brain dead” has the same status as any other dead person.  Each state is entitled to make its own decision of whether or not to adopt a brain death statute.  California’s and Texas’ are similar in that they require the “complete cessation” of all brain activity.  The declaration of death is, in all states, a legal act.  Most hospitals have a policy similar to this one which set criteria and require the participation of at least two doctors.  A declaration of death cuts off any rights of the individual.  The family of someone declared dead is no longer a surrogate decision maker.  Rather, they have something like property rights to the disposal of the remains.    More pointedly, a declaration of death ends all eligibility for medical insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.  If a family decides to release the organs for donation, their host becomes not a patient but rather a “heart beating organ donor.” 

When a family wants to donate their loved one’s organs, a declaration of brain death is helpful mechanism for doing so.  Indeed, a series of high profile cases involving anencephalic infants in the 1990s pointed out the frustrations of parents who wanted to donate their children’s organs but could not because they retained minimal brain function.  However, there is never any legal need  for a declaration of brain death in order for a family to withdraw life sustaining treatment.  In 1993 bioethicist Robert Veatch wrote an important article in the Hastings Center Report in which he pointed out that “no one really believes that literally all functions of the entire brain must be lost for an individual to be dead.”  And indeed, no one really believes that a piece of paper converts a warm, breathing body from alive to dead.

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Art Caplan on “Accepting Brain Death”

Art Caplan has a new piece, co-authored with David C. Magnus, Ph.D. and Benjamin S. Wilfond, M.D., in the NEJM, addressing the legal and medical reasons for accepting brain death as death. From the article:

Over the past several decades, brain death has become well entrenched as a legal and medical definition of death. It is clearly defined by the neurologic community [...], standards for diagnosis are in place, and it is established in law. It has become the primary basis of organ-procurement policy for transplantation. Ironically, the other standard for defining death, irreversible cessation of circulation, lacks consensus about diagnosis.

The concept of brain death has periodically come under criticism.4  Continue reading

Would Marlise Munoz’s Fetus Have Survived? Should It Have?

This is post is part of The Bioethics Program’s ongoing Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases, which I’ve organized, and is cross-posted from the symposium. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.

Had the hospital not relented and removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz’s body, could the Munoz fetus have been brought to term, or at least to viability? And if so, would the resulting child have experienced any temporary or permanent adverse health outcomes? Despite some overly confident commentary on both “sides” of this case suggesting a clear answer one way or the other—i.e., that there was no point in retaining the ventilator because the fetus could never be viable or was doomed to be born with catastrophic abnormalities; or, on the other hand, that but for the removal of the ventilator, the “unborn baby” was clearly on track to being born healthy—the truth is that we simply don’t know.

Before getting into the limited available data about fetal outcomes in these relatively rare cases, a bit of brush clearing. The New York Times juxtaposed reports about possible abnormalities in the Munoz fetus with the hospital’s stipulation about the fetus’s non-viability in ways that are likely to confuse, rather than clarify:

Lawyers for Ms. Muñoz’s husband, Erick Muñoz, said they were provided with medical records that showed the fetus was “distinctly abnormal” and suffered from hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain — as well as a possible heart problem.

The hospital acknowledged in court documents that the fetus was not viable.

Whether intentionally or not, the nation’s newspaper of record implies — wrongly, I think — that the hospital conceded that the fetus would never be viable because of these reported abnormalities. In court, the hospital and Erick Munoz stipulated to a series of facts, including that Marlise was then 22 weeks pregnant and that “[a]t the time of this hearing, the fetus gestating inside Mrs. Munoz is not viable” (emphasis added). The hospital conceded nothing at all about any fetal abnormalities. In short, the Times, and many other commentors, have conflated “non-viability” as a function of gestational age with “non-viability” as a way of characterizing disabilities that are incompatible with life. As I read this stipulation, the hospital was not at all conceding that the fetus would never have been viable, had the ventilator remained in place. Rather, given the constitutional relevance of fetal viability, the hospital was merely conceding the banal scientific fact that the Munoz fetus was, at 22 weeks, not currently viable. There is nothing surprising in the least about the hospital’s “concession” about “viability” in the first sense, above: 22-week fetuses are generally not considered viable. Continue reading

Media Matters: Fetal Abnormalities in the Munoz Case

Nadia N. Sawicki

The tragic case of Marlise Munoz is finally at an end, now that John Peter Smith Hospital has, pursuant to an order by Judge R. H. Wallace, Jr., taken Ms. Munoz off life support and released her body to her family.  A few questions about the media’s role in this case linger in my mind, however; I will be addressing them in a series of posts.

In the days immediately preceding the court’s ruling, media reports frequently mentioned that the fetus Ms. Munoz was carrying was “distinctly abnormal.”  My impression is that these reports were intended to strengthen the case, at least in the public’s eyes, for withdrawal of life support.  Maintaining a dead body on life support against the family’s wishes in order to preserve the life of an able fetus is one thing, commentators seemed to suggest, but the case for doing so when the fetus suffers from hydrocephalus, heart problems, and deformation of the lower extremities is less compelling.

In the eyes of pro-life advocates committed to preserving the potentiality of life at all costs, however, the fetus’ medical condition seems irrelevant.  Unless a fetus is definitively not viable (which in this case the hospital finally conceded it was), a true commitment to the preservation of fetal life would not waver in the face of likely disability upon the child’s birth.

The fervent media reporting about the abnormality of the Munoz fetus seems, at least to me, to reflect a disconnect between the public’s perception of the significance of fetal disability in such cases, and its significance to disability advocates and advocates of pro-life policy.  What lessons, if any, can we learn from this disconnect?

Fetuses, Organs and Brain-Death

One of the things that strikes me in the debate over whether a State has a sufficiently compelling interest in sustaining the physiological functions of a dead-brain pregnant woman in order to protect the life of the fetus, is that this very same rationale is not appealed to when we consider the many lives that are at stake when the deceased, or someone else — typically the next-of-kin — decides not to donate its organs after death. So, if the commitment of Texas — or any other State — with the protection of “human life” is sincere, if we can finally agree on that interest as being as compelling as to permit legislation restraining the woman’s right to refuse or terminate end-of-life care when she is pregnant, and their families’ right to bury or cremate their relative once it is pronounced legally dead, wouldn’t that rationale also legitimize the confiscation of dead-brain people in general in order to harvest their organs for the sake of saving the lives of others? I think coherence mandates so.

Actually, our reasons for such conscription in the case of organs’ harvesting are much more compelling than in the case of Marlise Muñoz if we take into account the fatal prognosis of the fetus, the experimental character of the continuation of pregnancy in a brain-dead woman, and the better expectations that we might nowadays have when we transplant organs.

This post is part of The Bioethics Program‘s Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases. To see all symposium contributions, click here.

Online Symposium on Munoz and McMath Cases

UPDATE: Following Friday’s court order (discussed below), the hospital today (Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014) removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz, who has met the criteria for brain death since Nov. 28, 2013.

Two high-profile, rapidly evolving cases involving death by neurological criteria — better known as “brain death” — raise vexing and sometimes novel legal, ethical, and medical questions at the edges of life and death. I’m organizing an online symposium on these cases over at The Bioethics Program Blog, and will be cross-posting my contributions here, beginning with this introduction to the symposium, which brings readers up to date with legal developments through today. Please contact me if you’re interested in participating.

The Marlise Munoz Case

On November 26, 2013, Erick Munoz found his wife, Marlise, unconscious on their kitchen floor. She was then 14 weeks pregnant with their second child. Erick resuscitated her and she was transported, alive, to John Peter Smith Hospital, where she was placed on a ventilator to assist her breathing and given other life-sustaining treatment. Not long thereafter, however, Erick says that the hospital told him that Marlise was brain dead.

Although Marlise did not have a written advance directive, according to Erick, both he and Marlise had

worked as paramedics during their marriage, and thus were knowledgeable of and had personally witnessed injuries that resulted in death, including brain death. Erick and Marlise frequently discussed their requests, beliefs and desires with each other, and expressed clearly to each other, family members and friends, their respective desires not to be resuscitated should either of them become brain dead.

Erick requested, with the “full support” of Marlise’s parents, that the ventilator be removed from her body and that he be given possession of it for burial.

The hospital refused. It argued that § 166.049 of the Texas Advance Directives Act (TADA) — which provides that “a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient” — prohibits it from removing the ventilator. It was not entirely clear whether the hospital believed that Marlise was in fact dead or not. The media was reporting as late as December 24 that the hospital had said that Marlise was in “serious condition,” and the hospital had not released Marlise’s medical records, which Erick said would show a diagnosis of brain death, to him.

After the jump, this week’s developments in the Munoz case, the McMath case, and a list of symposium participants.

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Art Caplan: Pregnant and dead in Texas: A bad law, badly interpreted

Art Caplan has published a new op-ed piece in the LA Times addressing the case of Marlise Munoz, the brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman from whom doctors are refusing to withdraw “life-sustaining treatment” despite her family’s wishes. The hospital where Munoz argues that it cannot withdraw such treatment because of a Texas law forbidding the removal of such treatments from a pregnant patient. Caplan argues:

Given the clarity of this statutory language, it is hardly surprising courts have determined it inapplicable after a determination of death. For example, in a similar case in Houston, a Texas court ordered a hospital to continue treatment for a comatose Tammy Martin, who was then 15 weeks pregnant. But the court reversed the order, a few weeks later, once Martin had been declared dead.

Not only does the Texas law not apply, it is almost certainly unconstitutional.  Continue reading

Art Caplan: ‘Life support’ is wrong for brain-dead pregnant woman

Art Caplan has a new piece at NBC News online weighing in on the case of Marlise Munoz, the pregnant Texas woman who was declared brain dead by doctors several weeks ago and yet is being kept on “‘life support’ technology” against her family’s wishes. Based on their reading of a Texas law that bans the withdrawal of such machines in cases where the patient is pregnant — regardless of advance directives or the family’s wishes — the hospital claims it has no choice. Caplan argues:

The hospital, however, is very confused. If Marlise is dead, then the Texas law does not apply. Even the legislature of Texas cannot compel continued use of medical interventions on a dead body. “Life support” technology need not be continued if the patient is dead. Erick Munoz made that case in his lawsuit against John Peter Smith Hospital.

“In fact, Marlise cannot possibly be a ‘pregnant patient’ — Marlise is dead,” the suit says. “To further conduct surgical procedures on a deceased body is nothing short of outrageous.”

But even if Marlise were alive — assuming she has either a terminal or irreversible condition — the hospital has the choice to do the right thing ethically, follow the wishes of her husband and family and stop intervening.

Read the full article.

 

Art Caplan on Brain Death, Death, and the McMath Case

Art Caplan has weighed in again, in a piece at Time.com co-authored with David Magnus, on the ongoing McMath case, in which 13-year-old Jahi McMath’s parents are fighting to keep her on life-support despite doctors’ diagnosis of brain death. From the article:

Concepts matter in medicine. This could not be more obvious than in the utter confusion on display over the concepts of ‘brain death’ and ‘life support technology’ that has resulted in two dead bodies being kept on ventilator support in California and Texas.  Continue reading

Art Caplan: Girl’s tragic case can’t change reality of brain death

Art Caplan has weighed in, with a piece for NBC News online, on the debate over the case of a thirteen-year-old California girl whose parents are suing to keep her on life support despite the fact that doctors have pronounced her brain dead. From the piece:

This case is so sad it is almost beyond description. But that fact should not be a reason to take the view that we don’t know what to do when someone is pronounced brain dead.

Brain dead is dead. It is as reliable a way to determine death as declaring that a person’s heart has forever stopped beating. In fact, due to the strict tests and procedures that have to be followed to determine brain death, it is probably even more error-free than pronouncing someone dead due to cardiac failure.

Brain death is not a coma. People wake up from comas—they still have brain activity. Brain death is not a vegetative state. People in a vegetative state still have some, minimal brain activity. Those who are brain dead have lost all brain activity except the random firing of a few cells. They will not come back.

For more, read the full piece.