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Legalisation of Euthanasia in India: Balancing Compassion and Ethics

Legalisation of Euthanasia in India: Balancing Compassion and Ethics

Legalization of Euthanasia in India

The term “euthanasia” can be distressing for some people, but under certain circumstances, it is considered a humane choice to end suffering. Euthanasia refers to the deliberate ending of a person’s life, which is illegal in our country but legal in some others due to its compassionate nature. Typically, euthanasia is an option for individuals suffering from incurable diseases where recovery is doubtful. In some cases, social activists have appealed to the courts to allow the end of a patient’s life when their condition is terminal and recovery is unpredictable. However, the law generally does not permit ending someone’s life, as it protects the lives of all individuals.

Historical context

The term “euthanasia” was attributed to Sir Francis Bacon and is also commonly referred to as “mercy killing”. It originates from the Greek words “eu” and “thanatos”, signifying “good death”. Euthanasia entails the deliberate termination of a life to alleviate pain and suffering, under the condition that the intention is benevolent and the passing is as devoid of pain as possible.

Ethical Considerations 

The Indian constitution ensures freedom of autonomy and personal choice. Articles 14 and 15 prohibit any kind of discrimination among Indian citizens. However, when it comes to ending our lives, this freedom is not granted because, according to the law, everyone has the right to life but not the right to end their life. From the perspective of personal choice and autonomy, we can argue that ending our lives should be a right for every individual. However, in India, various religious beliefs are involved in this scenario. According to Indian culture, it is considered that birth and death are in the hands of a higher power. Therefore, having the liberty to end our lives is considered immoral in Indian culture. It is also a harsh reality that if someone is suffering from severe pain and is not given the liberty to end their life, then it is also a failure of our system. However, from a religious point of view, it is not considered immoral.

Types of Euthanasia

Active Euthanasia:

Active euthanasia involves the intentional positive action of medical professionals or any other individual to cause the death of the victim. This includes administering a lethal drug or an overdose of a drug that would not result in death if given at a normal dose.

Passive Euthanasia:

In passive euthanasia, the victim’s death results from the withholding or omission of the necessary treatment to sustain life. This may involve the failure to provide life-sustaining treatment or the discontinuation of life support systems, feeding tubes, or life-extending operations. In passive euthanasia, medical professionals do not actively cause death; they simply abstain from taking action to save the individual.

Voluntary Euthanasia:

Voluntary euthanasia occurs when a patient suffering from an incurable disease expresses consent and a desire to end their life. It primarily pertains to the patient’s right to choose to end their suffering.

Non-Voluntary Euthanasia:

Non-voluntary euthanasia occurs when the life of a mentally incompetent individual, such as a patient in a coma, is ended, and no living will or advance directives exist. In such cases, family members often decide as the patient is unable to do so.

Legal Aspects of Euthanasia in India

The Indian courts exclusively recognize passive euthanasia. In a recent case of Common Cause (A Regd. Society) vs. Union of India and Anr., the Court upheld the fundamental right to die with dignity, as declared by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the case of Gian Kaur. The Court also clarified that the concept of passive euthanasia was not introduced by the ratio of Gian Kaur. It extensively discussed the differentiation between active and passive euthanasia, emphasizing that active euthanasia involves an overt action, while passive euthanasia entails the withdrawal of life support.

The Court declared that the Court in Aruna Shanbaug had erred in stating that passive euthanasia could only be introduced through legislation. Regarding living wills, the Court acknowledged the concept of Advance Medical Directives in the country, emphasizing that the right to execute an Advance Medical Directive was a significant step toward safeguarding the right to self-determination and bodily integrity. In situations where patients were unable to make an informed decision, a ‘best-interest’ position could be applied, allowing a guardian to make decisions on their behalf.

Furthermore, the case extensively discussed the right to privacy as explained in the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India (2017 (10) SCC 1) and its association with autonomy and liberty. The Court drew on excerpts from all six judgments in this case. It also examined judgments from foreign jurisdictions and discussed the correlation between the right to privacy and its implications for euthanasia.

The Court stated that the protection of these rights was an emanation of the right to privacy, as they were related to the fundamental right to life and personal liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.

Section of IPC and Article 21 of the Constitution in Legalisation of Euthanasia in India: Balancing Compassion and Ethics
Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code deals with the abetment of suicide. It states that anyone who aids the commission of suicide of another person shall be punished with imprisonment for up to ten years and may also be liable to pay a fine.
Section 309 addresses the attempt to commit suicide. It states that anyone who attempts to commit suicide and takes any step towards the commission of such an offense shall be punished with simple imprisonment for up to one year, a fine, or both.

Article 21 of The Constitution of India, 1950 grants citizens the right to enjoy life, along with the rights of autonomy, privacy, and self-determination falling under the umbrella of personal liberty. However, the inclusion of the right to die within the right to life has been a point of controversy in India due to two legal impediments: sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which contain provisions related to abetment and attempt to suicide, respectively. The concept of euthanasia and provisions related to section 309 of the IPC has been reviewed by the Supreme Court through a series of judgments.

In the case of P. Rathinam V. UOI, the Supreme Court deliberated on whether the right to life, as outlined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, encompasses the right to choose not to live, thereby implying the right to die. The court affirmed the principle that any law infringing upon a fundamental right would be deemed void and unconstitutional. Consequently, the court declared section 309 of the Indian Penal Code void and unconstitutional, citing its infringement of the provisions of Article 21.
The court’s ruling was founded on the understanding that the right to life encompasses the freedom to make choices within the bounds of the law, rather than mere existence akin to that of an animal. The court considered the section to be both cruel and irrational, necessitating its removal to foster a more humane approach to penal provisions. Furthermore, the court expressed that suicide does not contravene public policy or religion, therefore negating the need for state intervention, which would encroach upon personal liberties.
In the legal case of Gian Kaur V. State of Punjab, a couple was charged under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 for abetting the suicide of their daughter-in-law, Kulwant Kaur. The trial court and the High Court convicted them under Section 306, and they subsequently challenged the constitutionality of this section, as well as whether Section 309 violates Article 21, in the Supreme Court through a Special Leave Petition. The Supreme Court made a clear distinction between the natural and unnatural end of life, emphasizing that the right to die at the end of one’s natural life should not be conflated with the right to die unnaturally, thereby prematurely ending one’s life.
The court upheld the constitutional validity of Sections 306 and 309, explaining that the right to die is a natural right and does not align with acts of an unnatural nature. It further clarified that individuals in a vegetative state or with terminal illnesses are already undergoing a natural dying process, and allowing them to experience a painless death with dignity falls within the purview of Article 21. Conversely, in the case of suicide, the unnatural termination of life initiates the process of death prematurely.

Consequences of Legalization of  Euthanasia in India

The legalization of euthanasia presents numerous potential benefits, particularly in providing relief to individuals enduring severe and protracted suffering. The case of Aruna Shanbhag serves as a poignant example, with the motivation behind the petition being the cessation of her enduring agony after many years of bedridden existence. In my analysis, if administered judiciously, euthanasia holds the promise of alleviating the ceaseless suffering of patients.

But there can be a misuse of this in Indian society. Some of the forbidden consequences are as follows-

  1.  Corruption -The prevalence of corruption in various facets of Indian society raises concerns about the potential consequences of legalizing euthanasia. There is a risk that individuals may exploit this legislation for personal gain, leading to misuse and disadvantaging others.
  2. Organ Selling – Furthermore, the possibility of illegal organ trade stemming from coerced euthanasia is a pressing concern. Exploitative practices, such as coercing individuals into euthanasia to profit from the sale of their organs, could arise should euthanasia be misused. This underscores the importance of carefully considering the potential implications of legalizing euthanasia.
  3. Children with disabilities: It is important to be aware that there are instances where parents of children with disabilities may contemplate euthanasia due to perceiving their children as burdens to themselves and society at large. This is a concerning possibility that may become more prevalent in the foreseeable future.
  4. Superstition: While characterizing India as a superstitious country can be contentious, it is important to acknowledge that there are still prevailing beliefs in irrational practices within our society. For instance, gender discrimination continues to persist, and it is conceivable that some individuals may misuse euthanasia to harm female infants. Moreover, other practices have the potential to lead to the misuse of euthanasia.

Conclusion

Some countries have legalized euthanasia, but it’s not universally accepted. In India, the courts took a long time to recognize and legalize passive, voluntary euthanasia. The recent decision by the highest court to legalize passive voluntary euthanasia is appreciated, given the developments in other countries. However, active euthanasia is still illegal, and it’s best if it remains so. Legalizing euthanasia could be more harmful than helpful for the people it’s meant to benefit.

Also Read: 
Rights of undertrial prisoners in India
How To Send A Legal Notice In India

Shreya Sharma
Shreya Sharma
As a passionate legal student , I am thrilled to embark on a promising internship in the realm of law articles. Through my writing, I am determined to unravel the intricate complexities of the legal world and make a meaningful impact. This is my opportunity to combine theory and practice, and I am ready to take on the challenge with enthusiasm and dedication.
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