Advance Directives, Autonomy and the Refusal of Life-Sustaining Medical Treatment
PhD by Publication, Queensland University of Technology, 2011
204 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2016
Date Written: 2011
As Australian society is ageing, individuals are increasingly concerned about managing their future, including making decisions about the medical treatment they may wish to receive or refuse if they lose decision-making capacity. To date, there has been relatively little research into the extent to which legal regulation allows competent adults to make advance refusals of life-sustaining medical treatment that will bind health professionals and others when a decision needs to be made at a future time. This thesis aims to fill this gap in the research by presenting the results of research into the legal regulation of advance directives that refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. In the five papers that comprise this thesis, the law that governs this area is examined, and the ethical principle of autonomy is used to critically evaluate that law. The principal finding of this research is that the current scheme of regulation is ineffective to adequately promote the right of a competent adult to make binding advance directives about refusal of medical treatment. The research concludes that legislation should be enacted to enable individuals to complete an advance directive, only imposing restrictions to the extent that this is necessary to promote individual autonomy. The thesis first examines the principle of autonomy upon which the common law (and some statutory law) is expressed to be based, to determine whether that principle is an appropriate one to underpin regulation. 1 The finding of the research is that autonomy can be justified as an organising principle on a number of grounds: it is consistent with the values of a liberal democracy; over recent decades, it is a principle that has been even more prominent within the discipline of medical ethics; and it is the principle which underpins the legal regulation of a related topic, namely the contemporaneous refusal of medical treatment. Next, the thesis reviews the common law to determine whether it effectively achieves the goal of promoting autonomy by allowing a competent adult to make an advance directive refusing treatment that will operate if he or she later loses decision-making capacity. 2 This research finds that conunon law doctrine, as espoused by the judiciary, prioritises individual choice by recognising valid advance directives that refuse treatment as binding. However, the research also concludes that the common law, as applied by the judiciary in some cases, may not be effective to promote individual autonomy, as there have been a number of circumstances where advance directives that refuse treatment have not been followed. The thesis then examines the statutory regimes in Australia that regulate advance directives, with a focus on the regulation of advance refusals of life-sustaining medical treatment.3 This review commences with an examination ofparliamentary debates to establish why legislation was thought to be necessary. It then provides a detailed review of all of the statutory regimes, the extent to which the legislation regulates the form of advance directives, and the circumstances in which they can be completed, will operate and can be ignored by medical professionals. The research finds that legislation was enacted mainly to clarify the common law and bring a level of certainty to the field. Legislative regimes were thought to provide medical professionals with the assurance that compliance with an advance directive that refuses life-sustaining medical treatment will not expose them to legal sanction. However, the research also finds that the legislation places so many restrictions on when an advance directive refusing treatment can be made, or will operate, that they have not been successful in promoting individual autonomy.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation