What is Euthanasia?
Euthanasia is an interest to end one’s own life intentionally for relief from suffering. It is also synonymous to the term mercy killing i.e., painless death for the people who are undergoing treatment for something incurable.
Where the term did had its origin?
The first apparent usage of the term “euthanasia” belongs to the historian Suetonius who described how the Emperor Augustus, “dying quickly and without suffering in the arms of his wife, Livia, experienced the ‘euthanasia’ he had wished for.” The word “euthanasia” was first used in a medical context by Francis Bacon in the 17th century, to refer to an easy, painless, happy death, during which it was a “physician’s responsibility to alleviate the ‘physical sufferings’ of the body.”
There are three types of euthanasia- voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia is conducted with the consent of the person; involuntary is against the consent of the person and non-voluntary is where consent cannot be taken.
Voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia can all be further divided into passive or active variants. Passive euthanasia entails the withholding of common treatments, such as antibiotics, necessary for the continuance of life. Active euthanasia entails the use of lethal substances or forces, such as administering a lethal injection, to kill and is the most controversial means. A number of authors consider these terms to be misleading and unhelpful.
Why a debatable issue?
Euthanasia has always been a debatable issue. Many consider the terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” to be synonymous. But there is a subtle difference between these two terms on the basis of degree of involvement and behaviour.
Frances Kamm, PhD, Lucius Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in her essay “Physician-Assisted Suicide, Euthanasia, and Intending Death” that appears in the 1998 book Physician-Assisted Suicide: Expanding the Debate, explained: “Euthanasia involves a death that is intended (not merely foreseen) in order to benefit the person who dies. It differs from physician-assisted suicide undertaken in the interest of the person who dies partly in that it involves a final act or omission by someone other than the patient (e.g., the doctor) in order to end the patient’s life…. In active euthanasia, the doctor introduces the cause of the patient’s death, e.g., a lethal injection…. Active physician-assisted suicide can involve, for example, the provision of means of death, like pills, that a patient may use. However, it might also involve giving the patient a stimulant to keep him awake so that he can shoot himself. That is, the active assistance need not involve giving a lethal substance.”
Laws relating to euthanasia in different countries
- Albania was one of the first European nations to allow legalized euthanasia in 1999.
- Belgium and the Netherlands both legalized euthanasia in the early 21st century. Both countries had a long, if informal, rule of not legally prosecuting doctors who provided euthanasia services to terminally ill patients. By instating a legalized policy, proponents suggested that better medical records could be kept and that physicians would be required to adhere to certain standards of care when helping patients commit suicide.
- Luxembourg passed legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide laws in 2008.
- Columbia‘s highest court passed a legalized euthanasia law in 1997, but the decision has never been ratified by Columbia’s Congress.
- In Japan, despite a clear law against euthanasia, a significant court decision in 1962 laid out six criteria that a physician must meet to perform the service for a patient legally.
- Germany does not penalise suicide or assisted suicide since 1751.
- France and Sweden does not have any specific laws relating to this.
- Norway has criminal sanctions against assisted suicide by using the charge “accessory to murder”.
- Finland has no such laws in its Criminal Code but there is no cases known relating to Finnish doctors assisting such suicides.
- Uruguay it seems a person must appear in court, yet Article 27 of the Penal Code (effective 1934) says: “The judges are authorized to forego punishment of a person whose previous life has been honourable where he commits a homicide motivated by compassion, induced by repeated requests of the victim”.
Indian laws on Euthanasia
The Supreme Court of India has legalized “passive euthanasia” under “exceptional circumstances”. Voluntary passive euthanasia is considered to be non-criminal in many countries.
The court also clarified that until Parliament enacts a law, its judgement on active and passive euthanasia will be in force.
The Law Commission of India clarified: “We are of the view that ‘Euthanasia’ and ‘Assisted Suicide’ must continue to be offences under our law. The scope of the inquiry is, therefore, confined to examining the various legal concepts applicable to ‘withdrawal of life support measures’ and to suggest the manner and circumstances in which the medical profession could take decisions for withdrawal of life support if it was in the ‘best interests’ of the patient. Further, question arises as to in what circumstances a patient can refuse to take treatment and ask for withdrawal or withholding of life support measure, if it is an informed decision”.
The Supreme Court of India in Aruna’s case has ruled out (non-voluntary) passive euthanasia subject to the safeguards laid down in the judgment. In the arena of safeguards, the Supreme Court adopted an approach different from that adopted by the Law Commission. The Supreme Court ruled in Aruna’s case that in the case of incompetent patients, specific permission of the High Court has to be obtained by the close relatives or next friend or the doctor / hospital staff attending on the patient. On such application being filed, the High Court should seek the opinion of a Committee of three experts selected from a panel prepared by it after consultation with medical authorities. On the basis of the report and after taking into account the wishes of the relations or next friend, the High Court should give its verdict.
After the check up, it was concluded that Aruna met almost all the criteria of being in a permanent vegetative state. But the court turned down her petition of mercy killing.
I feel there is a need of legalization of euthanasia all over the world. Nobody wants to die intentionally. But there are people who suffer much more than we can understand; few are in coma for decades; few are undergoing treatment for something incurable and few undergo intolerable pain.
Article 21 of the Constitution of India says “Protection of life and personal liberty”, and thus there should be a liberty on the part of the patient to seek for mercy killing.
For instance, a person with life-threatening cancer may refuse a course of chemotherapy because they would rather not tolerate the treatment’s side effects for the sake of a slightly longer life. They understand the reality of their situation and the consequences of their actions, and have therefore made a perfectly rational decision.
A life is no life worth living when the person can’t enjoy his life but seek for death to pop up soon. Death should be a personal choice and not a choice of the state to decide.
 Government of India, Law Commission of India, Report No. 241
About the Author
Amrita Dasgupta is pursuing her B.A. LL.B., from South Calcutta Law College. She loves doing research and holds a predilection for new things. Criminology has always been her field of interest but uncommon fields attract her more. Currently, she is interning at the Model Governance Foundation.