A welcome, long awaited judgement, where law has come to help the doctors and relatives of terminally ill patients. Doctors are often accused of over treatment, without realizing that law does not permit them the termination of treatment as desired by patients or relatives. commonly doctors come to face these difficult situations, where moral and ethical dilemma is larger than treatment itself.
The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that individuals have a right to die with dignity, in a verdict that permits the removal of life-support systems for the terminally ill or those in incurable comas.
The court also permitted individuals to decide against artificial life support, should the need arise, by creating a “living will”.
A ‘living will’ is a concept where a patient can give consent that allows withdrawal of life support systems if the individual is reduced to a permanent vegetative state with no real chance of survival.
It is a type of advance directive that may be used by a person before incapacitation to outline a full range of treatment preferences or, most often, to reject treatment. A living can detail a person’s preferences for tube-feeding, artificial hydration, and pain medication when an individual cannot communicate his/her choices.
In its verdict on Friday, SC has attached strict conditions for executing “a living will that was made by a person in his normal state of health and mind”.
The US, UK, Germany and Netherlands have advance medical directive laws that allow people to create a ‘living will’.
Active and passive euthanasia
Active euthanasia, the intentional act of causing the death of a patient in great suffering, is illegal in India. It entails deliberately causing the patient’s death through injections or overdose.
But passive euthanasia, the withdrawal of medical treatment with the deliberate intention to hasten a terminally ill patient’s death was allowed by the Supreme Court in Friday’s landmark verdict.
The court also laid down guidelines on who would execute the will and how a nod for passive euthanasia would be granted by a medical board set up to determine and carry out any “advance directive”.
In cases where there is no “advance directive”, the patient, family, friends and legal guardians can’t take the decision on their own, but can approach a high court for stopping treatment .
Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill
In 2012, the union health ministry posted a draft of the Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill on its website and invited public reactions.
The Bill is popularly referred to as the Passive Euthanasia Bill although its draft did not use the emotive word “euthanasia” to skirt complications around the term, a health ministry official told HT in 2016. It says every advance medical directive (also called ‘living will’) or medical power of attorney executed by a person shall be taken into consideration in matter of withholding or withdrawing medical treatment but it shall not be binding on any medical practitioner.
Misuse of law
A major concern is the misuse of the law. If it is legal to passively allow or hasten death, what’s to say an aged parent won’t be hastened in favor of an inheritance, or a spouse have treatment withdrawn for the sake of a hefty insurance payout? That is why there are legal provisions in the judgement by Supreme court, to safe guard the patients.
The bench also stipulated strict conditions for the execution of the living will, which includes the setting up of two medical boards and certification by the judicial magistrate. It also directed high courts to maintain a record of all living will documents prepared within the state.
Euthanasia in other countries
Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have been legal in The Netherlands and Belgium since 2001 and 2002. In the US, Switzerland and Germany, euthanasia is illegal but physician-assisted suicide is legal. Euthanasia remains illegal in the UK, France, Canada and Australia.