The Supreme Court on Tuesday referred to a five-judge Constitution Bench a petition seeking to declare dying with dignity a fundamental right for terminally ill patients.

A Bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh referred the Public Interest Litigation petition filed by Common Cause to the Constitution Bench.

The NGO argues that a terminally ill person should be given the right to refuse the life support system when a medical expert says she/he has reached a point of no return.

The CJI referred to an earlier Constitution Bench judgment which, in the Gian Kaur case, “did not express any binding view on the subject of euthanasia; rather it reiterated that the legislature would be the appropriate authority to bring change.”

Though that judgment said the right to live with dignity under Article 21 was inclusive of the right to die with dignity, it did not arrive at a conclusion on the validity of euthanasia, be it active or passive.

“So, the only judgment that holds the field with regard to euthanasia in India is the ruling in the Aruna Shanbaug case, which upholds the validity of passive euthanasia and lays down an elaborate procedure for executing the same on the wrong premise that the Constitution Bench in Gian Kaur had upheld the same,” the CJI said.

In May 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that euthanasia was not a permissible option for Ms. Shanbaug, who had been lying in a semi-comatose and vegetative state in Mumbai’s KEM hospital for 37 years. Her condition still remains the same.

The Bench said that in view of the inconsistent opinions rendered in the Aruna Shanbaug case and the important question of law involved, it was extremely important to have a clear enunciation of the law. “Thus, in our cogent opinion, the question of law involved requires careful consideration by a Constitution Bench of this court for the benefit of humanity as a whole.”

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