Euthanasia word literally means good death. It is also commonly known as mercy killing. The legal and medical definition of euthanasia is “an act of terminating or ending the life of an individual who suffers from an incurable disease or situation especially painful”.
Based on the procedure, euthanasia can be divided into two main categories; active euthanasia and passive euthanasia.
Active euthanasia is forcefully killing a person who is in vegetative stage by using lethal substance. Passive euthanasia is when the source on which the person is depended is removed causing death. Euthanasia is again divided into voluntary euthanasia, non-voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia.
Euthanasia is also known as Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS).
Types of euthanasia
In this type of euthanasia, death is speeded up by removing life support where the chances of recovery are almost nil. This is done to allow the death to occur naturally. In this method, extraordinary acts like life support system, or CPR (cardio-pulmonary-resuscitation) are omitted allowing the natural death. This type of euthanasia is now legal in India.
The active euthanasia is forcefully killing the person by using some lethal substances. In this type of euthanasia, death is caused by direct intervention. It is done to mostly people who are in vegetative state. This type of euthanasia is illegal in India as here is a high chance of committing homicide or murder.
In this type of euthanasia, the person suffering himself makes the plea for euthanasia. The patient makes a request orally or in writing preferring euthanasia to suffering. This type of euthanasia can both be passive or active. Voluntary euthanasia is legal in India while voluntary active euthanasia also called Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) is illegal.
This type euthanasia is done in the cases where patient goes into persistent vegetative state and is unable to give his consent. In such cases, close family members or close friend take the decision.
In this type of euthanasia, the patient is competent to give consent for euthanasia but does not give so or is not asked. This is in the form of direct homicide and is illegal in India.
History of euthanasia
Christianity teaches that life is a gift of god and one must live it. Hence this religion is against the concept of euthanasia. Similar concept is in Islam also. While in India, Hinduism seems to support suicide and self-liberation. This can be found in great sadhus giving up their own lives by taking Jal samadhi or other type of samadhis. Jal samadhi was taken by Lord Ram and Lakshman in Ramayana. As Hindus have concept of only body dying and soul is considered to be immortal, it is believed to liberate one’s soul by ending the deceased body. We can also find euthanasia in the form of Sati Pratha. That was more of involuntary euthanasia. However, the suicide is an offence in India and thus euthanasia was not legal in India.
Current scenario of euthanasia in India
For the first time, the law commission of India report no. 42 in 1971, recommended deletion of section 309 of IPC (Indian Penal Code). In the case of Rathinam vs Union of India, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that section 309 of IPC is violating Article 21 of Indian Constitution on the ground that it is cruel to punish an already suffering person. This judgment was overruled by a constitution bench of the Supreme Court in Gyan Kaur vs State of Punjab wherein it was held that right to live is inconsistent with the right to die. It was held that Article 21 may include death with dignity but it cannot be with unnatural extinction of life by suicide. Thus, Section 309 of IPC making suicide punishable offence was upheld.
The law commission of India in 2006 submitted its 196th report on terminally ill patients which recommended legalizing passive euthanasia in a very strict and controlled mechanism. It was made clear in the report by the law commission that euthanasia and PAS shall remain illegal and only passive euthanasia in case of terminally ill patient in permanent vegetative state with no chance of recovery was recommended.
This report was considered in the land mark case of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union of India. In this case, Aruna Shanbaug was found to be living in a permanent vegetative state though her brain was found to be functioning a little. A petition was filed on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug for mercy killing. In this landmark judgement the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India permitted passive euthanasia under strict guidelines laid down in this judgement.
The Hon’ble Court gave the following safeguards and conditions for passive euthanasia of patients unable to give consent:
- The decision to discontinue life support should be taken by parents/spouse/close relatives or in absence of them by the next friend. The decision can be taken by the doctors attending the patient but should be bona fide.
- If the decision is taken by near relatives or next friend or doctor, approval of High Court is required.
After above case, the law commission of India in 2012 submitted its report suggesting legalization of passive euthanasia in the light of Aruna Shanbaug case. It recommended passing of law in line of the guidelines made out in Aruna Shanbaug case. However, the active euthanasia and PAS remain illegal.
Thus, in India law of land as existing today as laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the matter of Common Cause vs Union of India is that no one is permitted to cause death of another person including a physician by administrating any illegal drug even to relieve the patient from pain and suffering. It was laid down that human being of conscious mind is fully entitled to refuse medical treatment thus causing voluntarily passive euthanasia. It was held that decision to withdraw lifesaving treatment by consenting patient or with regard to a patient who cannot take decision can be termed as passive euthanasia and is lawful and legally permissible in India. The Hon’ble Supreme Court recommended law to be made in such cases. Hence, since March 2018 passive euthanasia is legal in India under strict guidelines provided by Hon’ble Supreme Court. On 9th March 2018, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India passed historic judgement permitting passive euthanasia in our country.
Global Scenario of euthanasia
While passive euthanasia is made legal in India, active euthanasia remains illegal. Mexico and Norway permit active euthanasia. Albania, Colombia, The Netherlands and Switzerland permit euthanasia conditionally while in Australia euthanasia is now illegal. The United States permits withdrawal of life supports. Belgium allows the Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) on the patient’s request. In the USA, the states of Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana and New Mexico have made passive euthanasia legal for terminally ill patients.
Euthanasia is based on the thinking that people having terminal illness and who are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their own life. The people helping them should be free from prosecution. A human life of suffering due to pain and diseases hard to bear and it is inhuman to compel to such suffering. At the same time people can take advantage of euthanasia to fulfill their own greed. Hence, strict guidelines, proper functioning of mechanism, panel of experts and necessary infrastructure is required for implementing even passive euthanasia. A special law pursuant to guidelines of Hon’ble Supreme Court covering all aspects for the benefit and betterment of life should be enacted as it is a very sensitive subject matter on life.
Author: Omprakash Gupta,
Navrachana University 2nd year / Student