An individual comes into the world with certain rights. The freedom to live a life with respect and dignity is one of them. This fundamental right confers the state to provide a good and respectable life to its citizens. However, some exceptional circumstances warrant a different outcome. While the constitution considers the death of oneself or the act of suicide, a punishable offense, euthanasia, more specifically passive euthanasia is legal in India. It refers to the intentional killing of a person to relieve them of intolerable or incurable pain or suffering. Euthanasia is derived from a Greek word that means ‘good death’. It can also be considered as ‘mercy killing’.
To understand the concept of euthanasia, we must first understand its classification and the terms related to it.
Voluntary euthanasia: Refers to an individual’s conscious decision to end their life to rid themselves of pain or suffering. It requires the person’s complete awareness of the decision and the process involved in it.
Non-voluntary euthanasia: Refers to the decision of ending an individual’s life taken by another person, usually by a family member or a spouse. This occurs when the individual is permanently inoculated, unconscious, or unfit to take important decisions and has reached beyond the scope of treatment.
Active euthanasia: Also called “Positive Euthanasia” or “Aggressive Euthanasia”. It includes the deliberate killing of an individual who is suffering from an incurable illness by a medical professional. The doctors employ a painless method to induce death, such as injecting a lethal injection or overdosing the individual with some drug. It is the easiest way to cause someone’s death and therefore, its practice is a criminal offense in India.
Passive euthanasia: Also called “Negative Euthanasia” or “Non-Aggressive Euthanasia”. It includes the death of an individual by withdrawing life support, disconnecting the feeding tube, or another mechanism required to sustain life. Passive euthanasia is a slower process and is a lot more painful in comparison to active euthanasia. In other words, doctors practice passive euthanasia not by killing the individual but by withdrawing their life support. Passive euthanasia is legal in India.
Chronology of Legal Advancement:
The first time this issue was brought up was during the State of Maharashtra v. Maruty Sripati Dubal trial in 1986 where the court had concluded that the right to die falls under the issue of the right to life but this decision was overturned in future cases.
In 1987, during the Chenna Jagadeeswar v. State of AP case, the High Court of Andhra Pradesh criminalized suicide. This decision was later overturned in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India in 1994 which upheld the constitutionality of assisted suicide. However, another case two years into the future, and the previous judgment would be reversed. It was in this case that the court decided that the right to life only includes the aspect of life and it does not, in any way include the aspect of death. Therefore, passive euthanasia was made illegal.
Finally, in 2018, the issue was raised once again and a landmark judgment was passed that led to the legalization of passive euthanasia in India. For years, the question surrounding its legality was answered in the negative until the Aruna Shanbaug case in 2018 where the court decided to uphold the right to die as an intrinsic part of an individual’s liberty and right to life. The court made it clear that in the case of an incompetent person who is unable to decide on the withdrawal of life support, the court can decide whether to withdraw it. However, the views of friends and relatives would also be taken into account and given due consideration before the final decision is taken. While active euthanasia is still illegal, passive euthanasia, to some extent, was legalized.
Arguments in favor of euthanasia:
Every individual has the right to make decisions as to how they are supposed to live. They are enriched with the right to self-determination. Therefore, it is argued that an individual who is undergoing an unbearable amount of pain ought to have the right to end his or her life and seek relief from that pain. The Constitution lays down the importance of living a dignified life. Euthanasia, therefore, allows a person to choose between living an undignified life accompanied by pain and suffering or death. India lacks resources in terms of hospital space, medicines, and medical professionals. Therefore, it is argued that instead of spending resources on people who are more likely to die, the better alternative would be to invest those resources in people who show signs of recovery. Moreover, another argument suggests that euthanasia aims to help rather than harm. It not only provides the individual much-needed relief but also helps the patient’s family assuage their mental agony.
Arguments against euthanasia:
A fundamental right that every individual exercises is the right to life and this life is the gift of God. Human beings cannot decide who gets to die and live. Euthanasia devalues human life, making it seem worthless. It goes against medical ethics and morals. The medical profession is based on the idea of nursing, caring, and providing treatments. It in no way allows for ending the patient’s life. Euthanasia exacerbates the fear of people losing faith in the doctor-patient relationship which is based on mutual trust. Therefore, patients would lose their trust in their doctors and relatives because euthanasia could be a euphemism for assisted murder. Organ selling is not an alien concept to India. Euthanasia would make it all the more prevalent and increase its incidence. Moreover, people born with disabilities could also be subjected to it by their family members. This would be highly ironic since the issue of euthanasia was brought up due to humane reasons. Another argument suggests that, if suicide is criminalized then similarly euthanasia should also be considered illegal because they both result in the patient’s untimely death. Another argument emphasizes that life works in mysterious ways by highlighting several cases where people have woken up from a comatose state after many years. Euthanasia would result in destroying this hope which humanity relies upon.
The debate over the legality of euthanasia has been ongoing. However, it has been proven that it allows the individual to relieve themselves of pain and suffering. The onus is placed on the patient’s family who must make this difficult choice. While the decision of the apex court is highly commendable and a step in the right direction, the parliament should work towards issuing appropriate guidelines and effectively implementing them as far as possible. They should also ensure the guidelines issued by them are completely foolproof with zero loopholes to prevent its gross misuse.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.