Argentina’s senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a "dignified death" law by a vote of 55 to zero to grant the terminally ill and their families more power to make end-of-life decisions.
Up until now, a court order was need to end treatment or life support, but the new legislation allows patients dying or suffering from incurable illnesses or injuries to refuse treatment if there is a signed consent form.
In the past, getting approval from judges to order doctors to end life-support for patients dying or in a permanent vegetative state was very difficult in many Latin American countries, where opposition from the Roman Catholic Church is still powerful.
The “dignified death” law has already been approved by the lower house and will now do to President Cristina Fernandez to be signed into law.
However the measure expressly forbids the use of euthanasia, but instead focuses on the rights of patients and their families, and it also protects doctors from any legal responsibility when they follow the wishes of the patients.
"The aim is to respect the autonomous will of the patient," said Jose Cano, who leads the Senate's health commission, according to BBC.
The new law specifically applies to patients who are terminally ill and patients who suffer from irreversible and incurable illness or injury. Patients under these conditions can declare their right to refuse surgical procedures, hydration, nutrition, reanimation and life-support systems, and instead of needing to seek a court order, patients will only need an advanced health-care directive that is signed by a notary before with two witnesses.
With patients who have not prepared a health-care directive and can no longer speak for themselves, the new law permits family members or legal representatives to make the ultimate decision on the patients’ behalf.
"I think it's very good," said Angel Robles, 71, a retired taxi driver with terminal esophageal cancer who entered a hospice just recently said to Associated Press. "If I'm OK, these are things that I have to decide. But if not, I have confidence in my daughter."
But some lawmakers expressed concern about removing feeding tubes or life support for patients who can no longer speak for themselves.
Deputy Julian Obligo of the conservative PRO party had called for senators to remove this reference from the new law, claiming that it was equal to euthanasia because it provokes or hastens death, and Senator Sonia Escudero claimed that taking away nutrition and hydration could cause pain to a dying patient.
However some medical experts disagree, citing scientific evidence that shows that dying people naturally stop eating a drinking because their bodies are shutting down.
While force-feeding people while they are in the process of dying could actually cause more pain, the lack of food and drink would cause the dying body’s metabolism to produce substances that stimulate feelings of euphoria.
By removing the feeding tubes "you make their time more comfortable, not less, when they are near death," Professor Dan Brock, who teaches medical ethics at Harvard University told AP. "All the evidence suggests they are not suffering."
The Roman Catholic Church rejected the new law and argued that life support should never be stopped.
To approve gender rights law, Argentine senators also passed a law that allows people to change their gender, like undergoing a sex-change surgery or hormone therapy, without court approval.