The Supreme Court on Monday recommended to Parliament that it consider the feasibility of deleting Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (attempt to commit suicide) from the statute.

Making this recommendation, a Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said though a Constitution Bench in Gian Kaur's case had held Section 309 IPC constitutionally valid, “the time has come when it should be deleted by Parliament as it has become anachronistic. A person attempts suicide in depression, and hence he needs help, rather than punishment.”

Writing the judgment, Justice Katju said: “It may be noted that in Gian Kaur's case although the Supreme Court has quoted with approval the view of the House of Lords in Airedale's case, it has not clarified who can decide whether life support should be discontinued in the case of an incompetent person, e.g. a person in a coma or PVS [permanent vegetative state]. This vexed question has been arising often in India because there are a large number of cases where persons go into a coma (due to an accident or some other reason) or for some other reason are unable to give consent, and then the question arises who should give consent for withdrawal of life support.”

Explaining why the court was not recognising the petitioner in this case, Pinki Virani of Mumbai to espouse the cause of Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, who has been lying in a vegetative state in hospital for 37 years, the Bench said though her petition was bona fide “considering the low ethical levels prevailing in our society today and the rampant commercialisation and corruption, we cannot rule out the possibility that unscrupulous persons with the help of some unscrupulous doctors may fabricate material to show that it is a terminal case with no chance of recovery.”

It said: “While many doctors are upright, there are others who can do anything for money. The commercialisation of our society has crossed all limits. Hence we have to guard against the potential of misuse. In our opinion, while giving great weight to the wishes of the parents, spouse, or other close relatives or next friend of the incompetent patient and also giving due weight to the opinion of the attending doctors, we cannot leave it entirely to their discretion whether to discontinue the life support or not.”

The Bench said the High Court could pass suitable orders on the application filed by the near relatives or next friend or the doctors/hospital staff praying for permission to withdraw the life support to an incompetent person. The High Court should seek the opinion of a committee of three reputed doctors to be nominated by it. The committee should carefully examine the patient and also consult the record of the patient as well as taking the views of the hospital staff and submit its report to the High Court which should appropriate orders on the application seeking withdrawal of life support.

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