Towards a law on euthanasia

February 02, 2016 12:17 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:01 am IST

The time for legislation to deal with euthanasia has come. The Union government has now informed a >Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court that its experts are examining a draft Bill proposed by the Law Commission in its 241st report. However, it has been advised by the Law Ministry to hold back its enactment now, as the matter is pending before the court. Over a decade ago, the government felt that legislation on euthanasia would amount to doctors violating the Hippocratic Oath and that they should not yield to a patient’s “fleeting desire out of transient depression” to die. The government’s latest stand represents forward movement in the quest for a legislative framework to deal with the question whether patients who are terminally ill and possibly beyond the scope of medical revival can be allowed to die with dignity. The question was raised with a great deal of passion in the case of Aruna Shanbaug, a nurse who lay in a vegetative state in a Mumbai hospital between 1973 and 2015. In >a landmark 2011 verdict that was notable for its progressive, humane and sensitive treatment of the complex interplay of individual dignity and social ethics, the Supreme Court laid down a broad legal framework. It ruled out any backing for active euthanasia, or the taking of a specific step such as injecting the patient with a lethal substance, to put an end to a patient’s suffering, as that would be clearly illegal. It allowed ‘passive euthanasia’, or the withdrawal of life support, subject to safeguards and fair procedure. It made it mandatory that every instance should get the approval of a High Court Bench, based on consultation with a panel of medical experts.

The question now before a Constitution Bench on a petition by the NGO Common Cause is whether the right to live with dignity under Article 21 includes the right to die with dignity, and whether it is time to allow ‘living wills’, or written authorisations containing instructions given by persons in a healthy state of mind to doctors that they need not be put on life-support systems or ventilators in the event of their going into a persistent vegetative state or state of terminal illness. The government’s reply shows that the Directorate-General of Health Services has proposed legislation based on the recommendations of an Experts’ Committee. The experts have not agreed to active euthanasia because of its potential for misuse and have proposed changes to a draft Bill suggested by the Law Commission. However, there seems to be no support for the idea of a ‘living will’, as the draft says any such document will be ‘void’ and not binding on any medical practitioner. It is logical that it should be so, as the law will be designed specifically to deal with patients not competent to decide for themselves because of their medical condition. This has to be tested against the argument that giving those likely to drift into terminal illness an advance opportunity to make an informed choice will help them avoid “cruel and unwanted treatment” to prolong their lifespan. To resolve this conflict between pain and death, the sooner that a comprehensive law on the subject is enacted, the better it will be for society.

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