New Delhi, Oct. 11: A five-judge Supreme Court bench today hinted at the possibility of allowing people to write "living wills" so that family members could withdraw their life support if they ever reached a stage of terminal illness entirely dependent on artificial means of survival.
"Allowing an advance (living will) directive would free family, relatives and doctors of their moral dilemma, moral responsibility on what to do next," the court said.
Living will is a written document that allows a person to give explicit instructions in advance about the medical treatment to be administered when he or she is terminally ill or no longer able to express informed consent.
The constitution bench was dealing with a public interest plea filed by the NGO Common Cause. The organisation has sought a law permitting passive euthanasia so that terminally ill patients can end their lives by being allowed to leave behind a "living will" when they are healthy.
Passive euthanasia allows withdrawal of artificial life support with the consent of the patient's family and approval of a medical board. The practice, a form of mercy killing not allowed in the country except under court monitoring in exceptional cases, is in vogue in several countries.
The apex court rejected the central government's argument that allowing people to write such wills when they are healthy involved "complex social and moral questions" and should not be legally permitted because of the possibility of misuse.
The government had yesterday told the court it had prepared a draft bill to permit passive euthanasia, allowing only duly constituted medical boards to withdraw life support.
"Now that you have decided to allow passive euthanasia, we have to evolve safeguards," the bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.K. Sikri, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan told additional solicitor-general P.S. Narasimha who appeared for the Union government.
The court allayed the Centre's fears of possible misuse of a living will, saying the final decision on whether a terminally ill patient's life support would be withdrawn or not would rest with the medical board set up for the purpose.
The bench, which reserved its verdict after two days of arguments, said it would lay down rules governing how such living wills have to be drawn up, executed and given effect to.
Justice Misra said the court would lay down the rule that such wills are executed in the presence of a judicial magistrate and two witnesses.
The bench invited suggestions from all stakeholders so that adequate safeguards could be built in to make the process foolproof.