Euthanasia in the Indian Legal Context

Helping a critically ill person to die according to his will is one of the most controversial debates in today’s contemporary healthcare. Like cloning and body donation euthanasia has also generated intense controversy because of new attitudes developed in medicine.

Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering. It is categorized as voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary. Euthanasia can be further classified into active or passive ones. Active euthanasia is an intentional act to deliberately kill a terminally ill patient using various means whereas passive euthanasia happens when medical treatment is removed purposefully resulting in a person’s death to relieve him from unending pain. Until now euthanasia is not legalized in India.

In the Gyan Kaur case, the Honorable Supreme Court held that both euthanasia and assisted suicide are not unlawful in India. The court confusingly stated that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution does not include the right to die. The court held that Article 21 is a provision guaranteeing protection of life and personal liberty and by no stretch of imagination can extinction of life be a read into it. The right to live with dignity does include the right to die with dignity. But the court could not come up with any practical rules and passed the buck to the lawmakers to come up with laws regulating euthanasia.

In 2006, the 196th report of the Law Commission of India brought out the ‘The Medical Treatment of Terminally ill Patients Bill 2006. However no laws were made concerning euthanasia.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of India in the Aruna Shanbaug vs. Union of India case laid down the guidelines to process pleas for passive euthanasia. It said till Parliament works out legislation, the procedure laid down by the guidelines should be followed. It also spelled out the differences between active and passive euthanasia.

In 2012, the Law Commission in their 241st report again proposed making legislation on passive euthanasia and prepared a draft bill called the Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients Bill. The Bill deals with passive euthanasia and living will. It doesn’t recommend active euthanasia.

The Supreme Court laid down certain guidelines for carrying out passive euthanasia: the decision to discontinue life support needs to be taken either by the parents or the spouse or other close relative or in the absence of any of them such a decision can be taken even by a person or a body of persons acting as a next friend. Such a decision can also be taken by doctors attending the patient as bonafide in the best interest of the patient. Every such decision needs approval from the concerned High Court. When a High Court receives such application, the Chief Justice should constitute a bench of at least two judges who should decide to grant approval or not. The bench will nominate and need a report from a committee of three reputed doctors. Before giving the verdict of a notice regarding the report should be given to the close relatives and the State. After hearing the parties, the High Court can give its verdict.

While some countries in the world have already recognized and legalized the provision of euthanasia, the legalization of the same may not be a very appealing idea. The courts in India, have, accordingly, taken a long time, from the cases of Gian Kaur, Aruna Shanbaug, to the case of Common cause (a regd. Society), in recognizing and legalizing the euthanasia, and have legalized passive, voluntary euthanasia. The Apex Court is the highest court of judicature, and the decisions given it has to be respected and acknowledged by all the citizens of the country, since the bench deciding the cases is highly experienced and wise.

Therefore, this decision of legalizing passive voluntary euthanasia is appreciated, owing to the recent developments on the law of euthanasia in some countries. Active euthanasia has not been legalized yet, and hopefully will not be done in the future as well. Euthanasia is going to be more of a mischief than a boon for the people for whom the legalization has been done.

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