People can give written directions called advance directives (see Legal and Ethical Issues: Overview of Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Care) about the type of care they do and do not want to receive when dying. Advance directives are legal written agreements that will be honored in the future when people can no longer communicate their wishes. For example, advance directives can prohibit resuscitation (the act of trying to revive a person whose heart has stopped) or tube feeding, if this is the person's wish. Advance directives may be in the form of a living will, which expresses the person's preferences for medical care; a durable power of attorney, in which the ill person designates another person to make health care decisions; or both. In most states, less formal decisions made during advance care planning among a person, family, and doctor are also powerfully helpful in shaping care to suit the person's preferences.
Although very few people actually take any steps toward causing their own deaths, many dying people at least consider suicide—even more so as the public debate about assisted suicide grows. Discussing suicide with a doctor may help sort out the issues and often correct certain problems that prompted consideration of suicide. The doctor can increase efforts to control pain, depression, and other troubling symptoms. Other members of the care team, such as clergy members, can assure the person and family that they are cherished and help them find meaning. Nevertheless, some people opt for suicide to relieve an intolerable situation or to retain control of when and how they wish to die. Most people find that they have enough control by refusing treatments that might prolong life, including feeding tubes and ventilators. Making decisions to forgo life-sustaining treatment is not considered suicide.
The Death With Dignity Act was passed in Oregon in 1997, and similar measures are being considered in other states. This law has made it legal for doctors in Oregon to prescribe lethal combinations of drugs for competent terminally ill people (a phrase that has a specific legal definition) to take when they decide to die. This law includes several measures to prevent potential abuses:
Last full review/revision October 2007 by Joanne Lynn, MD, MA, MS