Death is never the first choice, and people opt for this path only because there is none other left to take.

Euthanasia, or assisted suicide, has become a conundrum that has put governments in various countries in a quandary. It is an issue that has received widespread attention in recent years, and has been examined from a legal, health as well as religious point of view.

The case of Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse, who was sodomised and strangled by a ward boy, leading to her being in a vegetative state for the past 36 years, has brought to light euthanasia, an issue not discussed as openly and frequently in India as in other countries.

It has taken such heart-rending cases to wake up governments in many countries into considering legalising euthanasia. Chantal Sébire, a French woman who suffered from Esthesioneuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer, lost her sense of sight, taste and smell. The cancer also caused severe disfiguration of her face. She had to bear excruciating pain and would have eventually gone into a coma. She requested President Nicolas Sarkozy to grant her the right to die through euthanasia. In her appeal, Chantal said she wanted to spend one last day, celebrating with her family and dying happily. She was not granted the right, but she died soon after. It is suspected that she over-medicated herself so as to end her life.

More recently, in the U.K., Thomas Inglis, who suffered from severe head injuries and was in a coma with very little chance of recovery, was injected with a lethal dose of heroin by his mother, Frances Inglis, so as to rid him of his suffering. This case made the government deliberate on the efficacy of legalising euthanasia. Although Frances Inglis was sentenced to 9 years in jail for murder, this and the previous issue have set dangerous precedents to those who have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.

There are limits to human suffering, especially when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. A terminally ill patient cannot be kept on life support with the hope that, in the foreseeable future, there may be developments in medicine which may save him or her. Quality of life is as important as life itself. People argue that if euthanasia is legalised, it could be misused; but isn't that the case with most of the existing laws? Strong safeguards should be put in place to avoid any kind of misuse, and euthanasia should be allowed only when no amount of palliative care can help the patient recover. This debate has caused a schism within people from all walks of life. The people who matter most are those who have to endure unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental, and who may be forced to take the route of euthanasia. Death is never the first choice, and people opt for this path only because there is none other left to take. To die on one's own terms can be a boon for both the patients and their families who have to go through this ordeal.

This trend has especially gained momentum in the U.K. and Germany, stirring up a debate within the countries on the possibilities of legalising euthanasia. A law legalising euthanasia should be mooted by the Indian judiciary and implemented as soon as possible. However, the government could insist on two referrals from leading doctors that the patient is beyond cure and that euthanasia is the only way to end the suffering. As Charles Colton aptly put it, “Death is the liberator of him whom freedom cannot release, the physician of him whom medicine cannot cure, and the comforter of him whom time cannot console.”

(The writer's email is: prashant.aiyar@gmail.com)

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