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Right to Die with Dignity

Introduction

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has expanded its horizon over a large area conferring various rights. It is considered as the heart of the constitution that lays down the foundations for other laws. At first, a narrow interpretation was done concerning life and personal liberty, but over the years, liberal interpretation is given to these words. The scope of article 21 has attained different dimensions like the right to live with human dignity, right to privacy, right to livelihood, right to health, right to education, right to pollution-free air and water, etc. But does the right to die with dignity comes under the ambit of Article 21? The right to die is based on the opinion that human beings who have the right to live, should also have the right to end their life. The question that arises is “who should be empowered” to decide a life.

The constitutional validity of Right to die

The right to life is a natural right but the right to die is not a natural right. The legality of the right to die was first questioned in State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia,[1] where the High Court of Delhi criticized Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code that attempts to suicide as a punishable offence as a paradox. The question of the right to die aroused in many cases following this case. In another case, the court held that the Right to life includes the right to die and thus making section 309 as unconstitutional. It was also contended in this case that Section 309 was violative of articles 14 and 21.[2] But, the Andhra Pradesh High Court overruled this and held that Section 309 was not violative Article 14 and 21, therefore it is valid.[3] There is a huge difference between Euthanasia and Suicide, the former involves the intervention of a human being to end one’s life but the latter doesn’t need any assistance, suicide is an act of self-destruction. Therefore, mercy killing is not covered under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.[4]

The right to life covers the quality of life as well as physical existence, it should be understood in its fullness within the ambit of the constitution.[5] In P.Rathinam v. Union of India,[6] it was argued that giving punishments for the attempt of suicide violates the constitutional right to life and it also amounts to double punishment, especially in cases where a woman attempts to commit suicide after going through sexual abuse. It was held that Section 309 of IPC to be irrational as it attempts to punish a person who is under tremendous pain, therefore it should be effaced from the penal laws. Also, an act of suicide cannot be said to be against any religion or belief, it does not cause harm to any other person. But, the Supreme Court overruled this judgment in the case of Gian Kaur v. the State of Punjab,[7] it was held that the right to life does not include the right to die because the right to live with dignity would sustain until the end of the natural life of an individual. Thus any form of unnatural termination of life was held unconstitutional. The right to life under Article 21 includes a dignified procedure of death, so the court appears to approve passive euthanasia in few cases. Relying on Gian Kaur’s case, a writ petition was filed by a citizen demanding the government to set up a voluntary death clinic for providing services of voluntary death.[8]

  1. Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India[9]

Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, the petitioner of the case was working as a nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai. On 27th November 1973, a sweeper working in the hospital tried to rape her and strangled her with a dog chain. Due to the deprivation of oxygen, her brain was damaged and she was admitted to the KEM Hospital. She has been in a vegetative state, surviving on mashed food by feeding tube. There was no possibility of any improvement in her health condition. Pinki Virani, a social activist and a friend of Aruna filed a petition in the Supreme Court for stopping life support to Aruna because her existence in a vegetative state was violating her right to live a dignified life. On 7th March 2011, the Supreme Court issued a set of broad guidelines for legalizing passive euthanasia and rejected the plea to discontinue the life support of Aruna. This decision was taken based on the fact that the hospital staff and management who treated her did not support euthanizing her. After 42 years of coma, on 18th May 2015, she died from pneumonia.

  1. Common Cause (A Regd. Society) vs. Union of India[10]

A person who is in the vegetative state for a long period and there is no hope for his recovery or improvement in their health condition and those who are given artificial life support and painful treatment should be given relief from the pain by discontinuing their treatment, this is called as passive euthanasia. This case was filed by an NGO for legalizing the passive euthanasia and recognition of living will. The petitioner contended that though the living will a person can give consent for passive euthanasia by drawing life support. They argued that the right to die with dignity also comes under the ambit of the right to life recognized under Article 21. The government contended that the living will be against the ethics of the doctor profession. The respondents also argued that living will be misused in the family property cases and it is against public policy. It was held that the two-bench of Aruna Shanbaug’s case had wrongly interpreted the case based on the Gian Kaur case that passive euthanasia can be made lawful only by legislation. The legality of passive euthanasia was discussed again and they gave sanction to passive euthanasia and living will. The implication of this case was that right to die with dignity is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian constitution. It was held that proper rules have to be laid down by the legislature for passive euthanasia.

Active and Passive Euthanasia

Active Euthanasia is performed to end the life of a patient, for example by injecting the patient with a lethal substance, this is considered as positively killing a person, but it is not legalized in many countries. Even in India, it is illegal and considered as murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. On the other hand, passive euthanasia is the withholding of the treatment or removal of life support which is legal in many countries including India. It is legal without any legislation in support of it. Doctors cannot kill a person by active euthanasia but they can simply stop saving the patient by passive euthanasia. In active euthanasia, a doctor can be held liable for his act but whereas in passive euthanasia, no one can be held liable for not saving someone’s life.

Medical Treatment to Terminally ILL Patients Bill, 2006

This bill was introduced to provide protection of patients as well as medical practitioners from liability for withdrawing the life support of terminally ill patients. According to this draft, a terminally ill patient above the age of 16 years can decide on whether to continue his treatment or not. A medical practitioner is bound by the decisions of the patient, but he has to confirm that patient is competent and has taken a decision on free will. A panel of medical experts discuss each case and send it to the High Court for permission. The whole process to carry on passive euthanasia is stated in the bill. The bill only approves of passive euthanasia, not the active euthanasia used by ulterior motives. Even though there are few flaws in the bill, it is a new significant step in many respects.

Arguments for legalizing euthanasia

  1. The extremely painful life can be put an end.

  2. The burden of caregivers has reduced both ways economically and physically. The emotional and social burdens are cut off.

  3. Every person has the right to refuse medical treatment. If a doctor treats a patient against his right then he can be charged for assault.

  4. It also encourages organ transplantation.

  5. Medical funds spent on them can be diverted to the poor and needy people.

  6. Every individual has the right to die under the right to life.

Arguments against legalizing euthanasia

  1. Religious communities of society will not accept the concept of euthanasia. It may be against the values and ethics of their religion.

  2. It will lead to the commercialization of health care.

  3. It affects the basic structure of the constitution.

  4. People will resort to these methods to save medical charges.

  5. Old and weak will be eliminated considering as burden.

  6. It can be used for mala fide intentions within the family.

  7. Euthanasia will devalue human dignity and will break the basic principle sanctity of life.

Conclusion

The pain and suffering undergone by the patients do not make their life dignified. An individual cannot be forced to live in pain for whole the time. A person who cannot show improvement in his health conditions, have to be given rest from the pain they undergo. A terminally ill person should be allowed to terminate his life through passive euthanasia. Medical science has shown progression, but people’s mind has not yet progressed to accept passive euthanasia. The Supreme Court landmark decision in 2018 has been a major boost for the society. The right to die with dignity has become a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Case Laws:

[1] State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia, 1986 (10) D.R.J. 31.

[2] Maharashtra v. Maruti Sripati Dubal, 1987 CriLJ 743.

[3] Chenna Jagadeeswar v. State of Andhra Pradesh, 1988 CriLJ 549.

[4] Naresh Marotrao Sakhre v. Union of India, 1995 CriLJ 96.

[5] State of Himachal Pradesh v. Umed Ram Sharma, A.I.R. 1986 S.C. 847.

[6] P.Rathinam v. Union of India, A.I.R. 1994 S.C. 1844.

[7] Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, A.I.R. 1996 S.C. 946.

[8] C.A. Thomas Master v. Union of India, 2000 CriLJ 3729.

[9] Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, (2011) 4 S.C.C. 454.

[10] Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India, A.I.R. 2018 S.C. 1665.

Pooja

4th Year

BBA LLB (Hons)

Sastra Deemed University

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