Euthanasia comes from the Greek words, eu (good) and thanatosis (death) and it means “Good Death, “Gentle and Easy Death.” This word has come to be used for “mercy killing.” In this sense euthanasia means the active death of the patient. It is a way of deliberately ending the life of a patient on patient’s own request or on the request of close relatives. Euthanasia does not mean suicide; there is a thick line between the two. Suicide means intentionally killing oneself due to lack of motivation to live while euthanasia means mercy killing and is committed on the basis of medical reasons, where the death of a terminally ill person is brought about by another person, who believes that such person’s existence is so bad that he/she would be better off dead because there is no hope of him/her returning back to being a normal person and living a normal life or close to normal life.

There are mainly three types of euthanasia:-

  • Voluntary euthanasia: When the person who is killed has requested to be killed.
  • Non-voluntary: When the person who is killed made no request and gave no consent.
  • Involuntary euthanasia: When the person who is killed made an expressed wish to the contrary.

Euthanasia can be either passive or active.

  • Passive euthanasia means life-sustaining treatments are withheld and nothing is done to keep the patient alive.
  • Active euthanasia occurs when a physician do something by giving drugs or substances that ends a patient’s life.


Human euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana.

In April 2002, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. It imposed a strict set of conditions that the patient must be suffering unbearable pain, their illness must be incurable and the demand must be made in “full consciousness” by the patient. Oregon was the first US state to legalize assisted suicide. The law took effect in 1997, and allows for terminally ill, mentally competent patients with less than six months to live to request a prescription for life-ending medication. More than a decade later, Washington State approved a measure that was modeled on Oregon’s law. And last year, the Vermont legislature passed a similar law. Court decisions rendered the practice legal in Montana and, most recently, in New Mexico.

The world medical community considers both euthanasia and assisted suicide to be in conflict with basic ethical principles of medical practice. The World Medical Association, with members representing medical associations (including the American Medical Association) from eighty-two countries, has adopted strong resolutions condemning both practices and urging all national medical associations and physicians to refrain from participating in them even if national law allows or decriminalizes the practices.


In the case Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs. Union Of India & Ors it was seen that Aruna Shanbaug an Indian nurse who was at the centre of attention in a court case on euthanasia after spending 42 years in a vegetative state as a result of sexual assault.

While working as a junior nurse at King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, Shanbaug was sexually assaulted by a ward boy, Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki and remained in a vegetative state following the assault. On 24 January 2011, after she had been in this state for 37 years, the Supreme Court of India responded to the plea for euthanasia filed by Aruna’s friend, journalist Pinki Virani, by setting up a medical panel to examine her. The court rejected the petition on 7 March 2011. Shanbaug died from pneumonia after being in a persistent vegetative state for nearly 42 years.

In March 2011, the Supreme Court had allowed “passive euthanasia” of withdrawing life support to patients in permanently vegetative state. The mercy petition filed by Pinki Virani , a journalist on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug  was rejected , SC stated that in this case it was for the King Edward Memorial hospital staff to take that decision .The hospital staff have been amazingly caring for her day and night for so many long years, who really are her next friends, and not Ms. Pinky Virani. Hence it is for the KEM hospital staff to take that decision. And the KEM hospital staff had clearly expressed their wish that Aruna Shanbaug should be allowed to live. Therefore the plea was rejected.

While rejecting Pinki Virani’s plea for Aruna Shanbaug’s euthanasia, the court laid out guidelines for passive euthanasia. According to these guidelines, passive euthanasia involves the withdrawing of treatment or food that would allow the patient to live. Forms of active euthanasia, including the administration of lethal compounds is still illegal in India.

Medical science is progressing in India as in the rest of the world, and hence currently we are having devises that can prolong life by artificial means. This may indirectly prolong terminal suffering and may also prove to be very costly for the families of the subject in question. Hence, end-of-life issues are becoming major ethical considerations in the modern-day medical science in India. The landmark Supreme Court judgment has provided a major boost to pro-euthanasia activists though it is a long way to go before it becomes a law in the parliament. Moreover, concerns for its misuse remain a major issue which ought to be addressed before it becomes a law in our country.

-Aditi Shastri

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