After 14 years of debates and several draft Bills, the government has said it is ready to frame a statutory law on passive euthanasia, the act of withdrawing medical treatment with deliberate intention of causing the death of a terminally-ill patient. However, it said its “hands are stayed” because of a pending litigation in the Supreme Court on mercy killing.
The affidavit filed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in the Supreme Court on January 28, 2016 provides the first clear insight into whether the Government considers euthanasia as manslaughter or an act of mercy.
The Ministry informed the Supreme Court that an expert panel has made changes and cleared the formulation of legislation on passive euthanasia after extensive debates, from July 2014 to June 2015.
The committee however refused on legalising ‘active euthanasia’ – an intentional act of putting to death a terminally-ill patient – on the grounds that this would lead to potential misuse and is practised in “very few countries worldwide”.
The Health Ministry said it had consulted the Ministry of Law and Justice on the appropriateness of framing the euthanasia law when the issue is under the consideration of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court since February 2014. At this point, the Health Ministry said it was “prudent to stay its hands”.
The affidavit traces back to how the debate on legalising and regulating euthanasia began with a Lok Sabha private member’s Bill – The Euthanasia (Regulation) Bill, 2002 – which was examined by the Health Ministry. The debate kick-started again four years later, following the 196 th Law Commission Report on euthanasia and the drafting of the Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill, 2006.
But the Ministry’s experts under the Director General Health Services took a stand against euthanasia for reasons that it amounted to “intentional killing” and against the Hippocratic oath.
The affidavit said of how the Government even viewed euthanasia as an act against progressive medical science’s objective to rehabilitate and treat patients. “Death may be a fleeting desire arising out of transient depression” and doctors should not fall for the patient’s wish to escape suffering by embracing death, it said.
The affidavit also said the Government’s perceptions about euthanasia changed in 2011 when the Supreme Court issued comprehensive guidelines allowing passive euthanasia in the tragic case of the bed-ridden former Mumbai nurse Aruna Shanbaug. In her case the staff of KEM Hospital took care of her till her natural death last year.
The apex court’s guidelines, accepted by the Government, led to the Law Commission’s 241 st Report recommending a re-look at passive euthanasia in 2012.
The Law Commission subsequently took full two years to draft a new law on the subject - The Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill. The Ministry had received the draft Bill in April 2014 and begun its task to fine-tune the law.