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Is the decision of a treating doctor to withhold or withdraw medical intervention in the case of patient in terminal stage of illness or in permanently vegetative state where artificial intervention will prolong the suffering protected by law or not?
Yes, the decision by a treating doctor to withhold or withdraw medical intervention in the case of a patient in the terminal stage of illness or in a persistently vegetative state or the like where artificial intervention will merely prolong the suffering and agony of the patient is protected by the law. Where the doctor has acted in such a case in the best interest of the patient and in bona fide discharge of the duty of care, the law will protect the reasonable exercise of a professional decision;
In the matter titled as “Common Cause versus Union of India” 2018 (5) SCC 1 passed by the Hon’ble Constitution Bench of 4 Judges of the Supreme Court of India, it has held that:
“Moreover, the doctor does not inflict a bodily injury. The condition of a patient is on account of a factor independent of the doctor and is not an outcome of his or her actions. Death emanates from the pre-existing medical condition of the patient which enables life to chart a natural course to its inexorable end. The law protects a decision which has been made in good faith by a medical professional not to prolong the indignity of a life placed on artificial support in a situation where medical knowledge indicates a point of no return. Neither the act nor the omission is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death. This is for the reason that the likelihood of death is not occasioned by the act or omission but by the medical condition of the patient. When a doctor takes a considered decision in the case of a patient in a terminal stage of illness or in a permanently vegetative state, not to provide artificial life support, the law does not attribute to the doctor the knowledge that it is likely to cause death. 99 Section 43 of the Penal Code defines the expression illegal to mean “…everything which is an offence or which is prohibited by law, or which furnishes ground in a civil action”.
Withdrawing life support to a person in a permanently vegetative state or in a terminal stage of illness is not ‘prohibited by law’. Such an act would also not fall outside the purview of Section 92 for the reason that there is no intentional causing of death or attempt to cause death. Where a decision to withdraw artificial life support is made in the caregiver of the patient, it fulfils the duty of care required from a doctor towards the patient. Where a doctor has acted in fulfilment of a duty of care owed to the patient, the medical judgment underlying the decision protects it from a charge of illegality. Such a decision is not founded on an intention to cause death or on the knowledge that it is likely to cause death. An act done in pursuance of the duty of care owed by the doctor to a patient is not prohibited by law.
In a situation where passive euthanasia is non-voluntary, there is an additional protection which is also available in circumstances which give rise to the application of Section 92. Where an act is done for the benefit of another in good faith, the law protects the individual. It does so even in the absence of the consent of the other, if the other individual is in a situation where it is impossible to signify consent or is incapable of giving consent. Section 92 also recognises that there may be no guardian or other person in lawful charge from whom it is possible to obtain consent. However, the proviso to Section 92 stipulates that this exception shall not extend to intentionally causing death or attempting to cause death. The intent in passive euthanasia is not to cause death. A decision not to prolong life beyond its natural span by withholding or withdrawing artificial life support or medical intervention cannot be equated with an intent to cause death. The element of good faith, coupled with an objective assessment of the caregiver of the patient would protect the medical professional in a situation where a bona fide decision has been taken not to prolong the agony of a human being in a terminal or vegetative state by a futile medical intervention.”