Argentine Senate approves 'dignified death' law

Associated Press Modified: May 9, 2012 at 10:15 pm •  Published: May 9, 2012

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a "dignified death" law giving terminally ill patients and their families more power to make end-of-life decisions.

The law passed by a vote of 55 to zero, with 17 senators declaring themselves absent. It passed the lower house last year.

Now Argentine families won't have to struggle to find judges to order doctors to end life-support for people who are dying or in a permanent vegetative state. Getting such approval can be very difficult in many countries, particularly in Latin America, where opposition from the Roman Catholic church still runs strong.

"I think it's very good," said Angel Robles, a 71-year-old retired taxi driver with terminal esophageal cancer who entered a hospice last week. "If I'm OK, these are things that I have to decide. But if not, I have confidence in my daughter."

The measure expressly forbids euthanasia — actions that provoke death — and instead focuses on the rights of patients and their families. It also absolves doctors of any legal responsibility when they follow the patient's wishes.

The law applies to the terminally ill as well as patients suffering irreversible and incurable illness or injury, declaring their right to refuse surgical procedures, hydration and nutrition, reanimation and life-support systems. Rather than seek a court order, all they need do is prepare an advanced health-care directive and sign it before a notary, with two witnesses.

The ethical challenges surrounding end-of-life issues become more difficult when the patient can no longer speak for himself and has not prepared such a formal document. In these cases, the Argentine law empowers family members or legal representatives to make the decision on the patients' behalf.

"This is important because in general Latin America has been very behind on these issues and so it's nice to see Argentina leading the way," said Dan Brock, who teaches medical ethics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Some lawmakers expressed discomfort about withdrawing feeding tubes or life support to someone who can no longer communicate.

Deputy Julian Obligo of the conservative PRO party pleaded with senators to eliminate this reference, alleging that it amounts to euthanasia by hastening death. Sen. Sonia Escudero, a dissident member of the governing Peronist party, alleged that withdrawing nutrition and hydration could cause pain to a dying person.

Medical and bioethical experts say otherwise — that an abundance of scientific evidence shows that dying people naturally stop eating and drinking for a reason — their bodies are shutting down — and that force-feeding them at that point actually causes pain. In contrast, without food and drink, the metabolism produces substances that actually produce feelings of euphoria.

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