Supreme Court recognizes right to refuse medical treatment

The Supreme Court has passed a far-reaching judgment today allowing terminally ill patients the right to refuse treatment and die, subject to certain safeguards and conditions.

The Supreme Court has also approved the right to refuse medical treatment and the concept of a ‘living will’. A living will is essentially a document that lets people state their wishes for end-of-life medical care, in case they become unable to communicate their decisions.

The living states when a person should be allowed to die, instead of being kept on life support system.

“Any individual has the full right to decide that he cannot take any medical treatment.. the family has to respect that decision,” Prashant Bhushan, the petitioner said.

“Second, if a person gives an advance directive.. that also has to be honored by the doctors and his family. Third, if a person is unconscious and has also has not expressed a will, the family and doctors can take a decision to withdraw artificial support system. No doctor or family member can be made culpable for withdrawing life support system…”

Bhushan said it was not clear what the legal formalities are in the third case — when the patient is not conscious and neither has he or she left a living will.

The move will allow terminally ill people to die instead of facing pain or driving their family to bankruptcy.

The judgment came in a petition filed by Common Cause, the NGO headed by Prashant Bhushan.

Passive euthanasia, or the allowing of death by the withdrawal of life-support systems in a hospital, has been in legal in India for some time, but there was no legal validity for ‘living wills’, which are required for an individual to actually implement passive euthanasia in his or her own case.

Today’s judgment lays down the exact procedure for drafting and approving such living wills.

The Supreme Court also gave out a list of safeguards that must be observed when any individual creates a living will to deal with the question of what to do when he or she becomes terminally ill.

The court has directed that a statutory medical board should be set up to approve such wills.

The Supreme Court said everyone has a right to ‘die with dignity’.