This Article is written by Swaranjali Kapoor ( a 4th-year law student at Jims engineering management Technical campus Greater Noida affiliated with GGSIPU)
Table of Contents
The term EUTHANASIA was coined by a 17th century English philosopher called Sir Francis Bacon. Euthanasia was derived from two Greek words eu and thantos which mean good and death. Euthanasia basically means mercy killing. It is a process of painlessly taking a person’s life who is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness. It is done to end the person’s agony.
Euthanasia is of two types:
- Active euthanasia
- Passive euthanasia
Active euthanasia is a practice where doctors intentionally perform an act such as administering hazardous lethal substances for example a lethal injection in the body of the patient that ultimately causes the patient’s death. The doctor can immediately end the patient’s life through this process. But, taking the consent of the patient or their guardians is important here.
Passive euthanasia on the other hand is a process of deliberately taking a patient’s life by either depriving the patient of the necessary treatment or care such as food, water, medicines, or withdrawing them from life support machines.
Euthanasia is practised on those patients who are in a vegetative state, who are declared brain dead, who is suffering from an incurable disease or are in a permanent state of coma. It is performed in order to end their suffering since there is absolutely no chance of them recovering.
The right to life is one of the basic human rights that are given to a person right from his birth. It is a fundamental right provided under Article 21 of the Constitution of India and without it, no other right can exist. Life does not mean mere animal existence. Right to life under Article 21 means a quality, worthy and meaningful life. This has been guaranteed by our Constitution. But the question here arises is that if a person has a right to life does he also have a right to die? Whether right to life also includes the right to die? This question has been answered by the Indian courts through various judgments and opinions:
- The Bombay High Court, in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Shree MarutiDubal, held that right to life under Article 21 also includes right to die.
- But on the other hand, the Andhra Pradesh High Court, in the case of ChennaJagdeshwar vs. State of Andhra Pradesh stated that, right to die is not included in right to die under Article 21.
- Then in 1980, the Supreme court in the case of P.Rathinam vs. Union of India held, that right to life includes right to die. A person cannot be compelled to live to his detriment, disadvantage or disliking. Hence a person also has a right not to live. Section 309 of IPC which punishes attempt to commit suicide was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in this case.
- But then finally in 1996, in the case of GianKaur vs. State of Punjab, a five member bench overruled the judgment given in the P.Rathinam case and held that right to life does not include right to die as right to live and right to die are inherently inconsistent and cannot survive together. It also declared that section 309 of IPC to be constitutionally valid.
It is important to understand that there is a difference between Euthanasia and suicide. The act of committing suicide is a voluntary one. Here an individual intentionally and willingly does an act to take his/her own life due to any problem or situation her/she is facing in their lives. On the other hand, Euthanasia is the practice of ending a person’s life with the help of a third person such as a medical officer/doctor. It is also to be noted that ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘euthanasia’ are also different from one another. Assisted suicide takes place when a person helps another to take his own life. Therefore, in the case of assisted suicide, the victim has full control of the whole process that eventually leads to his death. On the other hand, euthanasia can be active or passive. Active as in when a doctor administers a lethal injection to end the patient’s life and passive as in when the doctor deprives the patient of all essential care and medical equipment and allows him to pass naturally.
Does the question now arise that is the practice of Euthanasia legal in India? To understand this we need to study a very important and path-breaking judgment of the case popularly known as Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs. Union of India (Euthanasia case).
ArunaShanbaug worked as a junior nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Parel, Mumbai. In the month of November 1973, on one particular night, a sweeper by the name of Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki who worked in the same hospital attacked Aruna and wrapped a dog chain around her neck. He tried to rape her but on finding that she was menstruating, he sodomized her. In order to keep her from moving, he tightened the chain around her neck and continued sexually assaulting her. The following day, another sweeper found her lying unconscious in a pool of blood. She was admitted to the hospital and it was discovered that the supply of oxygen to her brain has been cut off due to the strangulation and as a result, her brain was damaged. This incident caused serious and permanent damage to her brain which resulted in her being in a permanent vegetative state from which recovering was impossible. Her brain showed no sign of activity and feeding tubes were attached to her body to keep her alive. In January of 2011, after 37 years had passed of Aruna being in this vegetative state, PinkiVirani, a journalist who couldn’t see Aruna in this state anymore, filed a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution, to the Supreme Court. In the petition she requested the court to allow Aruna to undergo passive euthanasia as her right to live with dignity was getting violated and her chance to revive again and get better was next to impossible. She had the right to be released from her pain and trauma. The Supreme Court rejected the plea and poor Aruna stayed in that condition for a total of 42 years until she succumbed to her death in 2015. She died of pneumonia.
Though the Supreme Court did not allow Aruna to undergo the process of passive euthanasia, in 2018, it laid down some guidelines legalizing passive euthanasia in India:
- The decision to discontinue life support should be taken either by the parents of the patient or their spouse or any other close relatives, and in their absence, such a decision can also be taken by a person acting as a next friend or it can also be taken by the doctor of the patient, only and only if such a decision is made with a bona fide intention.
- If the decision is taken by close relatives or next friend or the doctor, to discontinue life support, then such a decision will require signatures from two witnesses present at the time and shall be countersigned by a Judicial magistrate of First Class. This decision id also required to be sanction by the medical board of the said hospital.
Following these two guidelines, the practise of passive euthanasia was made legal in India.
In 2018, in the case of Common Cause vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court acknowledged the Right to die with dignity as a fundamental right and introduced the concept of ‘living wills’. A living will is a document that allows a person to make decisions concerning what treatments he would like to undergo in case he falls critically ill in the future and is unable to make such decisions at that time.
The debate as to whether Euthanasia should be legalized in India or not has been continuing for a really long time. People who were in favour of Euthanasia being legalized argued that:
- Everybody should have the freedom of choice to choose whether they want to live a painful life or end their sufferings.
- Everybody should be provided with the right to die with dignity.
- Right to life under Article 21 means a right to quality, worthy and meaningful life, and not a life filled with pain and suffering.
- It helps to minimize the grief and pain of their loved ones as well.
- Those resources and medical equipment which are being used to treat an incurable patient should instead be transferred to patients who need them more and who have a chance of recovering.
People against the legalization of Euthanasia argued that:
- Health care professionals won’t be willing to break their oath by administering lethal substances to their patients and thereby causing their death.
- Euthanasia hurts moral and religious sentiments of several people as they still see it as a form of murder and they believe it’s illegal.
- Sometimes guilt consumes the patient and they might consent to euthanasia thinking that they’re being a burden on their family.
- Euthanasia can be heavily misused specially in a country like India; it can be used to cover up actual murders by portraying that it is mercy killing.
Even though several countries of the world have legalized Euthanasia, the courts in India took a really long time to acknowledge it. It took several cases, judgments and opinions which finally led the Supreme Court to legalize the practice of Passive Euthanasia in India. Active Euthanasia still to this date remains illegal in India and in my opinion, it should stay the same way in the future also. In a country like India, legalizing Active Euthanasia will only lead to mischief and misuse of this provision and innocent people will be killed in the name of euthanasia. It will create more harm than benefit people.
MarutiShripatiDubal v. State Of Maharashtra,CrLJ 549 AIR 1987.
ChennaJagadeeswar v. State of A.P, CrLJ 549 AIR 1988.
P.Rathinam v. Union of India, 3 scc 394, AIR 1994.
GianKaur v. State of Punjab, 2 scc 648, AIR 1996.
ArunaRamachandraShanbaug v. Union of India, (2011) 4 SCC 454 s 140.
Common Cause v. Union of India, 2014 AIR SC 1556 and 2014 SCC 5 338.