EUTHANASIA IN INDIA: MURDER OR AN ACT OF MERCY?

Introduction:

A little more than a decade ago Sanjay Leela Bansali’s multistarrer film, ‘Guzaarish’, prodded the Indian society to ruminate about Euthanasia, which is also popularly known as mercy-killing.

It is a practice by which a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease is relieved of such agony by intentionally ending his/her life. The plot revolves around a quadriplegic filing a petition in court seeking permission to end his life.


In some countries, there is a heated public debate about the moral, ethical, and legal issues surrounding euthanasia.In many countries, passive euthanasia is legal in certain circumstances. Active euthanasia, on the other hand, is legal in only a few states, such as, Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland, where it is restricted to specific circumstances and requires the approval of medical experts and the Judiciary. Whereas, in certain other countries, namely, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan there is non-existent support on this issue.


The case of India:

Active Euthanasia is illegal in India as it is considered as a form of suicide.

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code deals with attempts to commit suicide and Section 306 deals with abetment of suicide- both of which are punishable acts by law.Only those who are brain dead can be taken off life support with the help of family members. Likewise, the Honourable Supreme Court is also of the view that the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution does not include the right to die. Even it is stated in Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002 in Chapter 6 which is in accordance with the provisions of the Transplantation of Human Organ Act, 1994, that euthanasia is unethical and medical practitioners taking care of terminally ill patients should be protected from unnecessary lawsuits by the patients’ family with malafide intention.

The Law Commission Report 196 also recommended that there was no requirement to enact legislation to protect terminally-ill patients.


Over the years pleas of euthanasia were rejected by the Supreme Court. For example, in the case of Mr and Mrs Lavate, an elderly couple from Mumbai had wrote to the President’s office seeking active euthanasia in the fear of falling terminally ill. Another example is the case of Jeet Narayan of Uttar Pradesh who pleaded for mercy killing for his four sons who were paralysed in the neck-below. However, in India Passive Euthanasia was allowed only in specific and exceptional conditions after the landmark judgement of 2011.


Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union Of India & Ors:

Aruna Shanbaug was a nurse in a Mumbai Hospital. In 1973 at the age of 25 she was brutally attacked and raped by a hospital employee.

Although she survived the attack she was left in a vegetative state and was forced fed twice a day. She was kept alive for over four decades till she succumbed to a cardiac arrest.


Pinki Virani who wrote a book on Shanbaug in 1998 titled Aruna’s Story: The True Account of a Rape and its Aftermath, filed a Public Interest Litigation in 2009 seeking to become her ‘next friend’, as Shanbaug’s kin had either expired, or were unable to provide for her. A next friend is appointed to make essential decisions for a person if they are unable to do so themselves and in the absence of a legal guardian.

Virani pleaded with the court that passive euthanasia be allowed for Shanbaug.The Supreme Court rejected the petition on 7 March 2011.

The court declined to recognize Virani as the "next friend" of Shanbaug, and instead treated the KEM hospital staff as the "next friend." The staff of the hospital chose to make Shanbaug live as long as she could. However, in its landmark verdict, Supreme Court issued a set of broad guidelines which allowed passive euthanasia in India. The guidelines established that the decision to discontinue life support must be taken by parents, spouse, or other close relatives, or in the absence of them, by a "next friend". The decision also has to have a court approval : when the high courts receive such a plea, the chief justices would constitute a bench to décide it. The bench would then appoint a committee of at least three doctors to advise them.


Right to Life vs Right to Die: A dilemma

If people with incurable illness undergo euthanasia then it becomes a societal practice of disposing off invalids no longer useful to society.

If it is encouraged then it is degenerating for societal integrity, antithetic to the idea of palliative and rehabilitative care and it is crassly utilitarian. Moreover, legalisation of euthanasia may lead to undue commercialisation of the healthcare sector.


Contrarily, supporters of euthanasia, like the Death with Dignity Foundation, claim that the caregiver's burden is huge and cuts across various domains such as financial, emotional, physical, mental and social. Furthermore, involutary euthanasia is associated with abortion when permitted due to degenerative disease of the unborn baby in the womb.

Again, if euthanaisia is voluntarily decided by the patient with sound mind then it can be viewed as upholding the right to life by honouring the right to die with dignity.


Conclusion:

According to the Supreme Court Judgement of 2011, that contemporary Indian society and public health system is not mature enough to handle this sensitive issue, hence it needs to be withheld. However, this issue needs to be re-examined again after a few years.The Judgement laid down was to preserve societal harmony when faced with a complex medical, social and legal dilemma.


References:

Sinha, V. K., Basu, S., & Sarkhel, S. (2012). Euthanasia: An Indian perspective. Indian journal of psychiatry, 54(2), 177–183. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.99537


Vartak P. ( 2019) Euthanasia: Aruna Shanbaug, and 4 other prominent cases in India where mercy killing was sought. The Free Press Journal. https://www.freepressjournal.in/cmcm/euthanasia-aruna-shanbaug-and-4-other-prominent-cases-in-india-where-mercy-killing-was-sought


Maths, S. B., & Chaturvedi, S. K. (2012). Euthanasia: right to life vs right to die. The Indian journal of medical research, 136(6), 899–902. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612319/#:~:text=Euthanasia%20can%20be%20considered%20as,to%20advocate%20for%20organ%20donation.



This article is written by Aradhita Banerjee of Symbiosis Law School.

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