Euthanasia: The Current Status

To save a man’s life against his will is the same as killing him!

INTRODUCTION

Euthanasia or more commonly known as ‘mercy killing’ is the act of providing painless death to someone by the virtue of mercy. The concept of euthanasia relates back to the seventeenth century but in India, it was first raised in the case of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India[1]. According to Black Law Dictionary, Euthanasia can be defined as an act of bringing a person to death who is in a condition of incurable and painful disease to provide an end to his pain through mercy. Euthanasia can be classified into two types- Active and Passive Euthanasia. 

Active Euthanasia: Under this, the patient is brought to death at his request by the medical professionals. If a person is battling immense suffering and has no chances of recovery then he may be induced to death with the help of a lethal injection. It is a positive act that is done in mercy and to end the suffering of a meaningless existence.

Passive Euthanasia: It can be defined as bringing death through a natural course by removing life support or concealing the ongoing medical treatment. When the scope of a patient’s recovery is very uncertain, passive euthanasia is practised to allow death naturally. A very thin line of difference lies between active and passive euthanasia as in some cases of passive euthanasia, heavy doses of morphine are given to the patient to curb down the pain which also has a dual effect of preventing pain and accelerating death by suppressing the human respiratory system. It is also argued that it is just an omission on the part of medical practitioners in order to not save the patient by performing extraordinary acts which involve ceasing the food and water supply, removing the life support system so that the patient can die naturally and peacefully.

THE ARUNA SHANBAUG CASE[2]

On 24th January 2011, Pinki Virani, an activist and a journalist filed a plea in the Supreme Court on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug to end her life who was in a persistent vegetative state for more than thirty-six years. Aruna was sexually assaulted by a hospital ward boy and a dog chain was wrapped around her neck which caused the lack of oxygen supply to the brain that put her in a vegetative state. Therefore, the petitioner prayed in her plea that the doctors and staff of the KEM hospital where Aruna was bedridden for decades, should be directed to stop feeding her so that she can die peacefully.

The Court however rejected the plea but the bench of Justice Markendey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra provided a landmark judgement by recognising passive euthanasia in the year 2011. It also laid down certain guidelines for the same stating that the decision for the discontinuation of patients life support can only be taken by family, spouse or any other family member of the patient and the presence of a doctor who was treating the patient is also allowed while conducting passive euthanasia. It was also stated that there should be the mandatory will of the patient and the reasons to euthanize should be certified.

COMMON CAUSE CASE[3]

A writ petition was filed by a welfare society in the Apex Court to include the ‘Right to die with dignity’ within the bracket of the Right to live with dignity as provided under Article 21 by the Constitution of India. The petition also prayed to legalise passive euthanasia and a living will so that the individual can make a legal statement in advance authorising the family to initiate euthanasia if the individual reaches a vegetative state.

The Supreme Court upheld the prayer made by the petitioner and legalised both living will and passive euthanasia along with providing certain guidelines to execute a living will. The court also acknowledged the requirement of concrete legislation for euthanasia and stated that the guidelines provided will be in force until a proper law is enacted.

CONCLUSION

India is a country of cultural and religious diversities and forms mixed views about euthanasia. From the religious perspective, where it is considered as a sin, its legal perspective provides a remedy to the suffering patient through passive euthanasia. The judgements of courts are well appreciated and provide a scope of altering the laws with time and highlights the true spirit of the judiciary.

By

Jyotika

UILS, Panjab University


[1] (2011) 4 SCC 454.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Common Cause v. Union of India, (2018) 5 SCC.

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