Friday, 14 September 2007

Law Commission suggests panel for ‘mercy killing’

Law Commission suggests panel for ‘mercy killing’
ShubhenduSeptember 14, 2007

In its bid to prevent the harassment of doctors who withdraw life support to terminally-ill patients, India’s Law Commission has recommended formation of an expert medical panel to clear such decisions.

According to a PTI report, while providing safeguards to doctors against litigation, the Commission also encouraged patients and their relatives or friends to approach High Courts and get a declaration whether the decision to continue or withdraw life support is ‘lawful’.

Once a High Court has declared that a doctor’s decision is ‘lawful’, it will be binding on civil or criminal courts not to proceed against him in any matter relating to the case, the Commission said in its 434-page report “Medical Treatment to Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners)”.

Recommending the setting up of a three-member panel of reputed medical persons having at least 20 years experience to clear decision to withdraw life support, the Commission said it should be formed by statutory body and the names of the experts should be published in the gazette and official websites for quick access.

The majority decision of the panel will prevail and would be binding on doctors, it said. Maintaining that the withdrawal of life support to terminally-ill patients has always been held lawful in all countries, the Commission sought to make it clear that this was different from euthanasia or assisted suicide, which were always “held unlawful and continue to be unlawful”.
The Commission referred to several judgements passed by the highest courts of the US, Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia and News Zealand to show that they have been “unanimous on the legal principle” of enabling the withdrawal of support to terminally-ill or “living vegetable” patients.

Drawing a sharp line between an ‘informed’ and ‘uninformed’ decision by the patient on whether to continue or discontinue treatment, the Commission said a doctor must go by the ‘informed decision’.

The informed decision should be made by a competent patient, one who knows the nature of his ailment, alternative treatments available, their consequences, and consequences of remaining untreated.

The Commission pointed out in such cases, the informed decision will be “binding on the doctor” and neither the patient will be accused of suicide nor the doctor tried for abetting it.

The report also defined an “incompetent” patient as a minor or a person of unsound mind, or one who is unable or impaired and cannot understand, retain, weigh or communicate information about his ailment.

In such cases, the doctor would need to find out what is the “best interest”—not just medically but also in the light of “ethical, social, moral and emotional” considerations.

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