Death has not been as scary a concept in India as it has been in the West. Will our laws finally match our ethos? MEENA MENON

For all those campaigning for the right to die with dignity, the Law Commission's proposed recommendation to let terminally-ill patients end their lives, comes as a shot in the arm. Dr. Nagraj G. Huilgol, Secretary of The Society for the Right to Die with Dignity in Mumbai feels that at long last there is a change in perception which reflects the Indian ethos. “We look at death very differently from the West. It does not scare us as much. But because of our colonial past, our laws do not reflect our ethos, as a result of which the concept of euthanasia or willed death becomes illegal,” he says.

Big step forward

The Law Commission is also reportedly in favour of decriminalising suicide along with making euthanasia legal. Campaigners for euthanasia say it is a big step to a rational approach to end-of-life situations. “Euthanasia evokes some kind of a hospital with a lamb to the slaughter house situation. But that's not how it is. Euthanasia is an expression of the individual right to decide how and when he or she should die rather than allow the State to decide. It's a question of the individual's right to die or live the way he or she wants to,” affirms Dr. Huilgol, who is also chief radiation oncologist at the Dr. Balabhai Nanavati hospital.

“When we talk of excruciating pain not amenable to any treatment or loss of hope to have a reasonable life or a life dependent on innumerable support systems or a vegetative existence with no meaning to it, this is a drastic situation which can mean the end of life,” he explains. The Society in Mumbai founded by Dr. Minoo Masani has been working for a few decades to campaign extensively for the right to die with dignity. It has held meetings and conferences on the issue and a Bill was also moved in the State legislature when Sadanand Varde was a member. It has a life membership of Rs. 1,000 and sends out regular newsletters. There are three or four helplines to discuss the issue. The Society meets once in two years where lawyers, medical ethics experts and others are invited. Their next meeting is slated for September in Mumbai. It has over 300 members and one of the recent activities was to have an essay contest among students on euthanasia and nearly 50 took part which was promising.

One of the misconceptions about euthanasia is that it is some shady business. Dr. Huilgol dispels these myths and clarifies that it is a transparent process, not done in a hurry. It can only be carried out after two psychiatrists and two specialists not connected with the treatment endorse the mercy killing and it is they who decide that a person qualifies for euthanasia.

Accepted practice

While not many people verbalise euthanasia, one of the campaigning points is that in India, already many people practise passive euthanasia. Dr. Huilgol says, for instance, some do not accept treatment knowing fully well that death will be accelerated. There is no guilt feeling in them or the family when this is done. “The concept of willed death is common among Jain monks, Buddhists and also Hindus who believe in reincarnation. Hindus believe that if someone dies it is just a transformation. We also have synonyms for death like going to heaven etc which make you feel that death is not such a horrendous experience,” he points out.

Plenty of checks

One of the reasons why euthanasia is also taboo is that it may be misused. Dr. Huilgol feels there is evidence coming from the Netherlands, where it is legal, and Oregon in the US, to show that there are enough checks and counterchecks in place and the whole process can be properly monitored. No major scams have been detected so far. He also feels that any law can be abused so that is not an argument not to have a law in place. There are so many with end-of-life situations and if euthanasia is legalised, then a lot of people would benefit. Dr. Huilgol is fighting for the right to die because of his strong liberal values. “The State has no business to rule my life,” he avers. In places like the Netherlands, there are centres of euthanasia and people from other countries too go there. “It's not a slaughterhouse. For me, not allowing euthanasia is the State oppressing its people, which is the main issue. Euthanasia should also not be mixed with organ donation — one cannot die to donate organs,” he clarifies.

Along with euthanasia, it is also important to legalise a living will. By doing this, a person can direct whether he or she, when in a situation where it is not possible to give informed consent, for instance, in a bad accident or a situation where medical care cannot alleviate the pain, can choose not to be resuscitated. Living will is legal in Canada, the Netherlands, where euthanasia was made legal in 2002, and some states of the US.

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