Published On: March 09, 2018
While some patients get cured of their medical conditions, there are others who witness no such luck. Instead, they continue to live in a vegetative with the help of a ventilator and other life support systems. What does a patient’s loved one do in such cases? Does he or she pull the plug to relieve the patient from the suffering or does one continue let to let the patient exercise his or her fundamental right to life?
In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court has legalized passive euthanasia subject to ‘living will’.
What is passive euthanasia and a living will?
- Passive euthanasia: It is a condition where a medical treatment can be withdrawn with regards to a terminally-ill patient. This is opposite to active euthanasia where a terminally-ill patient is given drugs to pass on.
- Living will: It is a written document that can help a patient to give detailed instructions in advance about how his or her medical treatment should be carried out incase the patient is terminally ill and is unable to express consent.
Why did SC decide to go ahead with this verdict?
- The SC passed the verdict, keeping in mind the right of a citizen ‘to die with dignity.’ The judges on the bench were unanimous with their opinion that no citizen should be allowed to suffer and continue to live in a vegetative state when they don’t wish to.
- SC has passed this ruling after a petition by NGO Common Cause, that had approached the court to fight for the right to a ‘living will.’ The petition questioned the current law and refuted the practice of a patient being denied to prevent torture to his or her body.
- The SC has laid down a bunch of strict guidelines that have to be followed by people who give consent for passive euthanasia as part of their ‘living will.’ The judges have also defined who all can practice these rights but the details are ambiguous.
Why euthanasia is a controversial topic in India
Euthanasia has been a controversial discussion, especially in India. While some have been in favour of the practice, there are others who have strongly refuted it for the following reasons:
- Indians heavily indulge in the practice of naming their will and property after their children or beloved, to make them rightful owners post death. The probable owners may take advantage of this practice and use it to gain property will, earlier than needed.
- Some Indians tend to be superstitious and spiritual. Hence the practice of euthanasia interferes with their belief that God can cure illnesses.
- The practice of Euthanasia may affect the commitment of doctors to save lives, and may interfere with the possible discovery of revolutionary medical treatments.
Despite these concerns, SC allowed passive euthanasia, as an exception, in Aruna Shanbaug’s case in 2011. Shanbaug was a nurse who was sexually assaulted and as a result, spent 42 years of her life in a vegetative state. She passed away in 2015. Her case became the centre of attention with regards to the debate of euthanasia in India.
Here’s the chronology of events with regards to the euthanasia verdict:
- May 11, 2005: SC recognized the right to a ‘living will’ after taking NGO Common Causes’ plea into consideration. The court waited for the Centre’s approval of the same and declared the ‘right to die with dignity as a Fundamental Right.
- Jan 16, 2006: SC permits the Delhi Medical Council to intervene in the process and asks it to file the necessary documents that speak in detail about passive euthanasia.
- April 28, 2006: The Law Commision states that such pleas need to be passed through the High Court, that can take an informed decision after seeking suggestions from experts.
- Jan 31, 2007: The parties are asked to file the documents by SC.
- May 7, 2011: SC allows passive euthanasia for Aruna Shanbaug on the basis of a separate plea on her behalf.
- Jan 23, 2014: The final hearing of the case begins.
- Feb, 11, 2014: The proceedings of the International Workshop for Policy Statement on euthanasia are filed by the DMC and SC keeps the verdict reserved.
- Feb 25,2014: Irregularities are cited by the SC on the earlier cases of passive euthanasia.
- July 15, 2014: The plea is heard by a five-judge bench. Notices are issued to all the states and union territories.
- Feb 15, 2016: Centre says that the issue is being contemplated.
- Oct 11, 2017: A five-judge constitution hears arguments on the case and stays its verdict.
- March 9, 2018: SC legalizes passive euthanasia with strict guidelines.
Why SC’s ruling is a landmark one in India
As highlighted above, the topic of euthanasia has been a rather heated one in India, through the years. SC’s ruling has finally provided us with a final practice to follow.
Like Aruna Shanbaug, there are many people who spend their lives in a vegetative state, against their will. Where the concern for property wills, spirituality, and other aspects have always come in the way of the practice of euthanasia in India, SC’s ruling is proof that the nation is on the path of progress in healthcare.
Another probable added consequence is the reduction in medical costs, since the family of a patient living on life-support systems, ends up exhausting a lot of funds on a daily basis on costs for the intensive care unit, the hospital bills, etc.
Where the Indian constitution grants citizens the right to live, it also grants citizens the right to die with dignity. SC’s new verdict will be instrumental in honouring this right as the suffering of millions of people will be brought to an end. Where one has the right to live a life of freedom, one should also be allowed to bid a farewell without pain. There is no dignity in suffering and spending life like a vegetable. Above everything else, SC’s verdict on passive euthanasia will be influential in extending empathy to those leading their life in agony.