Should active euthanasia be legalised?


The debate over euthanasia is slowly gathering momentum in India, especially after the Aruna Shanbaug case. Hufrish Lacca and Mansi Rathod discuss this issue at length.

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
William Ernest

This quote signifies that any man in his senses can make a decision of his life which he doesn’t wish to live. No law should decide the amount of time a person should suffer or continue living a life they do not wish to live. This decision should only be taken by an individual for himself.

Euthanasia is a very complex term but the Oxford dictionary defines it as, ‘The painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.’ Further, the Cambridge dictionary defines euthanasia as, ‘The act of killing someone who is very ill or very old so that they do not suffer any more.’ The renowned authors Marvin Khol and Paul Kurtz’s define it as “A mode or act of inducing or permitting death painlessly as a relief from suffering”.

Types of euthanasia

Euthanasia takes different forms. It is broadly divided into: voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is where a patient makes a conscious decision to die. Involuntary is where a patient is killed against their expressed will, which is further of two types, namely, active and passive. Active euthanasia is where a medical professional or someone else deliberately intervenes to end someone’s life, while passive euthanasia is where death is caused by withholding or withdrawing treatment that is necessary for maintaining life.

Non-voluntary euthanasia is where the patient is unable to express their consent, and another person takes the decision of ending the patient’s life on his behalf. There is a certain moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia, but there is no real difference as the outcome of both is death of the suffering patient.

History of euthanasia and Indian religious views

Ancient Indian philosophy justifies the idea of wilful death. As per Hindu mythology Lord Rama took Jal Samadhi (death by drowning) in the Sarayu river. Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavir attained death in the same way. According to the western culture, right from the 5th century BC, no human being is said to have the right to decide the time and manner in which he dies. According to Christianity there is only one creator and one destroyer, that is ‘God’. If euthanasia takes place it is said to be a crime committed against God himself.

Under Islamic laws euthanasia is explicitly forbidden and is highly against the concepts of euthanasia or any kind of self-killing. Many people like Veer Savarkar and Vinoba Bhave had also chosen to end their lives by adopting fast unto death. Mahatma Gandhi was also a big supporter of wilful death. In this way we can trace that the right to die existed even in early times.

Some suggestions

Euthanasia gives the right to an individual to take control of his life. This would enable him to die with dignity as well. Denying a person, the right to die in a dignified manner extends his suffering.

On March 7, 2011 the Supreme Court of India set out certain guidelines allowing passive euthanasia in India for Aruna Shaunbaug who was in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) since 42 years. This case discussed the issue of euthanasia at great length, but an act that legalises euthanasia has still not been passed in India.

In India active euthanasia is illegal and a crime under Section 302 (murder) and Section 304 (culpable homicide) of the IPC. Physician assisted suicide is a crime under Section 306 IPC (abetment to suicide). The judiciary has given a positive opinion in the 2011 case of Aruna Shanbaug where in the patient was granted passive euthanasia.

We believe that the formation of a Statutory Euthanasia Board with ten members including one chairperson should be formed. This board would accept the applications of patients that want to be euthanised, assess and review such applications, and later if approved, grant euthanasia to the applicable patient. The chairperson would also be given one veto vote in case of divided opinions of the members. This board should work directly under the control of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

We are of the opinion that people should be able to express their wish to be euthanised in the future, that is, if they face such a situation, in their will. If they fail to do so, and cannot express their consent and have been suffering, their immediate family (parents, spouse/partner, children, siblings, in this order) can give their consent and will be granted euthanasia under scrutiny of the Statutory Board that is formed.

Bringing out a law which would put a stop to the illegal practices of DNR or ‘Do Not Resusciate’ option that is practiced in ICUs where there is a discrete discussion between the family and the doctors, which is not discussed openly at all, is required.

On 9th March 2018, in Common Cause v. Union of India, a five-judge Bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.K. Sikri, A. M. Khanvilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, held that the right to die with dignity is a fundamental right. An individual’s right to execute advance medical directives is an assertion of the right to bodily integrity and self-determination, and does not depend on any recognition or legislation by a State. It was concluded that the right to die with dignity as a fundamental right has already been declared by the Constitution bench judgment of the court in the Gian Kaur case that they reiterate. The Bench further concluded that an adult human being having mental capacity to take an informed decision has right to refuse medical treatment including withdrawal from life saving devices. Since the Common Cause judgment recognizes Right to Die as a fundamental right, the need for legalising active euthanasia under strict guidelines is of paramount importance as only then would there be a remedy to the right given.

The legalisation of active euthanasia in India would not only be helpful to the suffering patient and his family but it would also be a step towards liberating the individual further from the state and making him the rightful owner of himself. This would in turn strengthen the democracy of India and give people a sense of individuality and a feeling of complete control over oneself.

Hufrish Lacca and Mansi Rathod

Hufrish Lacca and Mansi Rathod are 3rd year students of Pravin Gandhi College of Law. They have a passion for writing and they want to throw light on those aspects of law which need immediate attention and they hope that some day with.