A new declaration of patients' rights drawn up by medicine's conscience, the World Medical Association, seems to offer very little in the way of rights when the chips are down.
While the declaration respects a patient's right to refuse treatment or a diagnostic test, doctors can still intervene against the patient's wishes "if specifically permitted by law and conforming to the principles of medical ethics".
This latter point suggests that, at the end of the day, doctor knows best. It gives him a carte blanche to intervene against the patient's wishes if current medical thinking indicates that it is in the patient's best interests that he acts.
The new code also states that medicine should intervene to save someone who has attempted suicide. The British Medical Association is one of the few objectors to this guideline, and has stated that a person has the right to take his own life.
The guidelines are not legally binding, but act as a moral watermark that most medical bodies around the world take careful note of. The World Medical Association represents three million doctors from 66 countries (BMJ, September 16, 1995).