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Enough. The living will has failed, and it is time to say so. We should have known it would fail: A notable but neglected psychological literature always provided arresting reasons to expect the policy of living wills to misfire. Given their alluring potential, perhaps they were worth trying. But a crescendoing empirical literature and persistent clinical disappointments reveal that the rewards of the campaign to promote living wills do not justify its costs. Nor can any degree of tinkering ever make the living will an effective instrument of social policy. As the evidence of failure has mounted, living wills have lost some of their friends. We offer systematic support for their change of heart. But living wills are still widely and confidently urged on patients, and they retain the allegiance of many bioethicists, doctors, nurses, social workers, and patients. For these loyal advocates, we offer systematic proof that such persistence in error is but the triumph of dogma over inquiry and hope over experience. A note about the scope of our contentions: First, we reject only living wills, not durable powers of attorney. Second, there are excellent reasons to be skeptical of living wills on principle. For example, perhaps former selves should not be able to bind latter selves in the ways living wills contemplate. And many people do and perhaps should reject the view of patients, their families, and their communities that informs living wills. But we accept for the sake of argument that living wills desirably serve a strong version of patients’ autonomy. We contend, nevertheless, that living wills do not and cannot achieve that goal.


Reprinted with the permission of the Hastings Center Report and Wiley-Blackwell.