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Medical Ethics |

Legal Fundamentals of Surrogate Decision MakingLegal Fundamentals of Surrogate Decision Making

Thaddeus Mason Pope, JD, PhD
Author and Funding Information

From the Health Law Institute, Hamline University School of Law, Saint Paul, MN; and Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical College, Albany, NY

Correspondence to: Thaddeus Mason Pope, JD, PhD, Hamline University School of Law, 1536 Hewitt Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55104-1284; e-mail: tpope01@hamline.edu


Reproduction of this article is prohibited without written permission from the American College of Chest Physicians (http://www.chestpubs.org/site/misc/reprints.xhtml).


© 2012 American College of Chest Physicians


Chest. 2012;141(4):1074-1081. doi:10.1378/chest.11-2336
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The four previous articles in this series have traced the history of patient autonomy and have identified its ethical and legal foundations. Patient autonomy is highly valued in the United States to the extent that the patient does not lose the right of self-determination when he or she loses the capacity to make health-care decisions for him or herself. The law has devised several tools to promote “prospective autonomy.” One mechanism is the instructional advance directive or living will. But most of us do not write such directives. Another mechanism is the proxy directive or durable power of attorney for health care, designating another person, a surrogate, to direct the course of our medical treatment upon our incapacity. But most of us do not do that either. Therefore, the most common mechanism by which our prospective autonomy is protected and promoted is through the informal selection of surrogates based on statutory priority lists. These “default” surrogates are the most numerous type of surrogate. This article explains the importance and legal fundamentals of surrogate decision making. It first describes five basic types of surrogates. The article then looks at the role of these surrogates and how they are supposed to make decisions on the patient’s behalf. Unfortunately, surrogate performance is often mediocre or poor. There are significant and persistent obstacles to good surrogate decision making. After explaining these problems, the article concludes by identifying several solutions.


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