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Forced to Live

Marshall Klavan wanted to die. His physicians wanted him to live. Who had the right to decide?

Doctors No Longer "Godlike" continued...

It's one thing for patients to gain the right to pull the plug; it's quite another to hold doctors personally liable if they don't comply with a patient's wishes. And up to now, courts have been reluctant to "impose liability on a caregiver for not following directives," says attorney Robyn Shapiro, director of the Center for the Study of Bioethics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Now that may be changing. "Jurors in the past were unwilling to fault physicians, especially in [taking actions] that prolong life," says Carol Sieger, staff attorney with New York-based Partnership for Caring, a counseling and advocacy group that invented the living will in 1967. "Now jurors no longer view doctors as godlike, parental figures. They're more willing to hold them accountable."

The Right to Die Is Not Absolute

Doctors say the conflict between patient autonomy and a physician's obligation to do no harm places them in a difficult ethical bind.

"The right to die is not absolute," wrote Crozer-Chester attorneys in their motion to dismiss Klavan's federal suit. "The right is balanced against the state's interest in protection of third parties, prevention of suicide, and protection of the ethical integrity of the medical community and preservation of life. Society has not yet reached the point where medical caregivers' well-meaning efforts to save a professional colleague's life are regarded as indecent, atrocious, and intolerable."

Loren Stein, a journalist based in Palo Alto, Calif., specializes in health and legal issues. Her work has appeared in California Lawyer, Hippocrates, L.A. Weekly, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

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