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Right to die with dignity is fundamental right: In landmark decision, Supreme Court allows passive euthanasia, 'living will'

By FnF Correspondent | PUBLISHED: 09, Mar 2018, 13:08 pm IST | UPDATED: 09, Mar 2018, 16:54 pm IST

Right to die with dignity is fundamental right: In landmark decision, Supreme Court allows passive euthanasia, 'living will' New Delhi: Stating that human beings have the right to die with dignity, the Supreme Court (SC) today allowed passive euthanasia, but made sure to set out strict guidelines that will govern when it is permitted.

The top court also allowed an individual to draft a living will specifying that they not be put on life support if they slip into an incurable coma in the future. In a 'living will', a person can make a statement in advance that their life should not be prolonged by putting them on a ventilator or an artificial support system.

The order was passed today by a five-judge Constitution bench of Chief Justice (CJI) Dipak Misra and Justices A K Sikri, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan. The apex court's order came on a plea by the NGO 'Common Cause'.

Though the judges gave four separate opinions, all of them were unanimous that a 'living will' should be allowed, because an individual should not be allowed to continue suffering in a vegetative state when they don't wish to continue living.

The top court today also set in place strict guidelines for carrying out the mandate of a 'living will'. The court did this by specifying who is authorised to give effect to it. The court also talked of involving a medical board to determine whether the patient in a vegetative state could be revived or not.

The SC said it was aware of the pitfalls in giving effect to 'living wills', considering the property disputes relatives have. Therefore, the SC said the relatives of a patient who has not written a 'living will' can approach high courts asking for passive euthanasia.

The NGO had approached the court seeking a direction for the recognition of a 'living will' and contended that when a medical expert said that a person afflicted with terminal disease had reached a point of no return, then they should be given the right to refuse being put on life support.

"How can a person be told that he/she does not have right to prevent torture on his body? Right to life includes right to die with dignity. A person cannot be forced to live on support of ventilator. Keeping a patient alive by artificial means against his/her wishes is an assault on his/her body," the petition said.

The Centre, however, had told the court that the government had in principle decided to decriminalise attempt to suicide which at present is an offence punishable by up to one year jail term under Section 309 of Indian Penal Code.

The bench, also comprising justices AK Sikri, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan, said right to die peacefully is part of fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 21 provides that "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

The top court had in 2011 recognised passive euthanasia in Aruna Shanbaug's case by which it had permitted withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from patients not in a position to make an informed decision. The Centre had opposed recognition of 'living will' and said the consent for removal of artificial support system given by a patient may not be an informed one and without being aware of medical advancements. It had cited examples of various countries in disallowing creation of living will by patients.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for petitioner NGO Common Cause, had argued that safeguards were needed while taking a decision by medical boards to withdraw life support of a patient. The bench was hearing the PIL filed in 2005 by the NGO, which said when a medical expert is of the opinion that a person afflicted with a terminal disease has reached a point of no return, he should be given the right to refuse life support.

On January, 15, 2016, the Centre had said the 241st report of the Law Commission stated that passive euthanasia should be allowed with certain safeguards and there was also a proposed law --Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patient (Protection of Patients and Medical Practitioners) Bill, 2006.

It had said that on specific occasions, the question of withdrawing supporting devices to sustain cardio-pulmonary function even after brain death, shall be decided only by a doctors' team and not by the treating physician alone.

A five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra passed the order allowing passive euthanasia with guidelines.

Euthanasia definition: It is the termination of someone’s life, when living becomes physically unbearable for someone. Euthanasia is mostly carried out because the person who dies asks for it, but there are cases of euthanasia where a person is not even in a state to make such a request.

While it is called assisted suicide, euthanasia is different. Euthanasia gives enough time to people to prepare for the death, of one’s own or that of a near one.

Here are some things about euthanasia that you should know.
  •     The term ‘Euthanasia’ comes from the Greek word ‘εὐθανασία’, that means ‘good death’.
  •     While doctors have to take The Hippocratic Oath --“I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel,” but like abortion, doctors can now ethically perform euthanasia under certain circumstances.
  •     Out of the 196 countries in the world, only 9 countries had legalised euthanasia or assisted death including Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania and US. India becomes the 10th country to legalise it. Even in USA, only the states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana have it legalised.
  •     Euthanasia can be catagorised into 5 types
  •     Voluntary Euthanasia – When a competent person makes a voluntary and enduring request to be helped to die.
  •     Involuntary Euthanasia – To end a person’s life without their knowledge or consent.
  •     Active Euthanasia – To end a person’s life by using drugs, whether by oneself or with the aid of a physician.
  •     Passive Euthanasia – To end a person life by not taking the necessary and ordinary action to maintain life, like withdrawing water, food etc.
  •     Involuntary Euthanasia – To end a person’s life against the will of the person.
  •     Euthanasia is mostly administered by giving lethal doses of painkiller or other drugs
  •     Though euthanasia is still illegal in England, King George V was euthanized. The King was suffering from cardio-respiratory failure, and was given a fatal dose of morphine and cocaine in order to hasten his death.
  •     Despite Euthanasia being generally illegal in India, there is a tradition of forced euthanasia in South India where it is called thalaikoothal.
  •     It is a Tamil term for “shower” or “oil bath.” Old feeble people are forced to drink fresh cow’s milk until they suffer breathing problems and, eventually, die. This tradition is apparently society approved.
  •     In 2010 Hrithik Roshan starred in a Bollywood film called Guzaarish, which portrayed euthanasia, opening up a huge debate nation wide.   
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