Information on The Living Will
The purpose of a living will is to guide one’s family and doctors. It comes into effect when its author is in a medical state from which they can not recover, and due to the condition are no longer able to make decisions. A living will can be ignored by the family and attending doctors if there is the remotest chance of recovery. It is advised that anyone who has a living will should tell their family and friends about it, in order to avoid an uncomfortable surprise in a time of great distress.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is a ‘Living will’?
A living will is a declaration of one’s non-consent to artificial life support in the event of one being unable to communicate one’s wishes when dying. The Living Will can be made by anyone over the age of 18 years who is of sound mind.
Is the ‘living will’ legally recognized in South Africa?
Living wills are not yet recognized in statute law. However, according to Section 12 of the Constitution, “everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity”, which includes the right to have control over one’s own body. The law recognizes a patient’s right to accept or decline treatment. A living will stands as a patient’s non-consent to artificial life support when dying.
What if a doctor ignores a patient’s living will?
If a patient’s living will has been brought to the doctor’s attention and the doctor proceeds to administer life support, the doctor’s act is unlawful, even if refusal of such treatment will result in death. If a doctor does not obey the patient’s wishes regarding refusal of treatment, he/she has perpetrated an assault against the patient and can be sued for damages. A doctor who objects to the living will should offer to step aside and transfer the patients care to another practitioner.
When can a doctor disregard a ‘Living Will’?
The law will not pay attention to a living will where a patient makes unlawful wishes. For example, if one requests euthanasia (mercy killing), asking a doctor to end ones life by lethal injection when a terminal illness begins to cause unbearable pain. Under current legislation, this would amount to murder.
A person 18 years or older can ask for more painkillers, even though the result will be that he/she may die more quickly. The doctor can, by law, increase the painkillers as long as the doctor does this for the purpose of reducing pain, and not with the intention of killing the patient.