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India’s top court allows ‘living wills’ for terminally ill

NEW DELHI: India’s top court ruled on Friday that terminally ill patients have the right to refuse care, approving the use of “living wills” to set out how they want to be treated.

The Supreme Court’s order – hailed as “historic” by petitioners – means medical treatment can be withdrawn to hasten a person’s death, a practice known as passive euthanasia.

The ruling means the family of someone in a permanent vegetative state and unable to communicate could withdraw life support in accordance with the patient’s wishes.

The justices gave the green light to living wills, legal documents that allow adults to express their preference on how they want to be treated if they become terminally ill or slip into an incurable coma.

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It enshrines the right to refuse care, although under strictly controlled conditions.

“Any individual has the right to decide that he should not take any kind of medical treatment or that he should not be kept alive by any artificial life support systems,” Prashant Bhushan, one of the petitioners, told reporters after the hearing.

“It is an important, historic decision.”

India’s chief justice Dipak Misra said that the guidelines set out by the court “will prevail until the government comes out with legislation”.

The Press Trust of India news agency said that in each living will, a court-appointed medical panel will review the instructions before they can be carried out.

With the latest decision, India joins a growing list of countries including Britain, France, Germany and Spain that recognise living wills.

The 2015 death of 66-year-old nurse Aruna Shanbaug, who was raped and left in a vegetative state for 42 years, reignited India’s national debate over euthanasia.

Her plight prompted the Supreme Court to decide in 2011 that life support can be removed for some terminally ill patients in certain circumstances.

Indian law does not permit active euthanasia or assisted suicide, in which patients are helped by doctors to end their lives.

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