Law · Society

The Battle for Euthanasia

The word Euthanasia comes from the Greek words Eu (good) and Thanatos (death), meaning ‘good-death’ or ‘dying well’. The concept of Euthanasia dates back to ancient civilization. The concept of Euthanasia is highly questioned. The controversy is very deceptive, raising questions whether people should be provided assistance in ending their life, or should be left on one’s own to bear the incurable disease and die naturally. The controversy is vastly contended because of the prompt developments in countries like Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, which have legalized Euthanasia. The concept of Euthanasia gained momentum in India during the judgment passed by the Court legalizing passive euthanasia in the prominent case of Aruna Shanbaug. However, the apex Court held that active Euthanasia is still ‘illegal’ in India, in the absence of any law to the contrary. Even if you kill another person even with is consent or request, is to infringe his ‘Right to Life, “a right that the constitution framers clearly held to be incapable of being waived or surrendered.

The debate surrounding the legalization of euthanasia in India has proven both enduring and refractory. Euthanasia is the way to exercise Right to die within the ambit of Right to Life. Article 21 has been framed in negative diction. However, the Supreme Court having imposed positive interpretation of the Article has imposed upon states to take steps for ensuring quality life and dignity. The right to die will imply extinction of life. When a person killing himself causes death it is termed as suicide. When death is caused unnaturally of oneself whatever the reason may be it is legally and ethically bad and must be prohibited. However, when death is voluntary and with consent of the dying person, it should be allowed in certain circumstances.

On 7th March 2011, the Supreme Court of India legalized passive euthanasia by means of the withdrawal of life support to patients in a permanent vegetative state. The Decision was made by passing a verdict in a case involving Aruna Shanbaug, who has been in a vegetative state for 37 years at King Edward Memorial Hospital. However, the Court rejected the plea to discontinue Aruna’s life support but issued a set of broad guidelines legalizing passive euthanasia in India.

This instance brought about a question in the Indian Supreme Court that English Courts encountered in the Bland decision“In what circumstance, if any, can a doctor lawfully discontinue life-sustaining treatment (including nutrition and hydration) without which the patient will die?” Court stated that it could have dismissed the Writ Petition for lack of violation of fundamental rights under Article 32, since there was no constitutional Right to Die. In the view of the importance of the issues, the Court decided to delve into the merits of the case and sought guidance from legislation and judicial pronouncements in foreign countries. Three crucial issues in Indian Medical studies were identified and tackled by the Court.

The Court consciously took on a herculean nature of task to bring clarity to the Concept of Right to Life. The Court endeavored to bring clarity to the issues of when a person can be legally considered ‘dead’ under Indian Law. This historical evolution of the understanding of death from a cardio-pulmonary perspective to today’s brain-centric definition, the Court recognizes the meaning of ‘death’ may need to be determined upon contextual purpose. In the American Uniform Determination of Death Act 1980,“according to which an individual who sustains irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain is dead.” According to the Court which reached at a situation where not only consciousness, but also every other aspect of life regulated from the brain could no longer be so regulated. The court identifies the following requisites: when a person is only kept alive mechanically; when there is no plausible possibility of the person ever being able to come out of this stage.

The judges making decisions on whether or not Euthanasia must be made legal have a lot of pressure linked to that very decision. It is never a case of a single individual and will always have implications on cases which happen in the future. Due to this very reason, legalizing euthanasia can change the very interpretation of the ‘Right to Life’. By separating the the acts of Active Euthanasia and Passive Euthanasia, the judges were able to maneuver around the fact as to whether euthanasia should even take place. The other issue which cropped up was if it was allowed, who was to take the decision in that regard. So the very important question raised here is that should a third party be given, despite his/her best intentions, the right to euthanize someone? This question shows that a blanket law legalizing euthanasia will raise millions of questions as to its admissibility.

Another issue with euthanasia is the misappropriation of the very term. Euthanasia in the medical world means injecting a lethal dose at the request of a patient as an act of mercy. This is practiced in a very few countries. But in India and a few other countries, most of the times, euthanasia is just grouped under killing a patient and nothing else. What we fail to see from doctors and other medical practitioners is their attempt towards quality of death. They need to set goals for the patient according to the phase of illness. Medical ethics and guidelines are still very much evolving around this particular issue.

In modern dialect, the ‘freedom to die’ seems to be flowing from the rights of privacy, autonomy, and self-determination. There is no uniform opinion found in cases decided by foreign court or the courts in India on issues related to euthanasia or assisted suicide. The conflict between the principles of sanctity of life and right of dignity of a human being need to be resolved. It should be allowed as a necessary exception only in passive and not in active form in exceptional cases where the individual cannot give consent and the medical opinion is such that death is certain and to withdraw medical support is in the best interest of the patient.

Written by:

Anish Krishnan
3rd year Law Student
Jindal Global Law School

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