In milestone verdict, Supreme Court legalises passive euthanasia

By Prarthana Mitra

In a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court of India on Friday legalised passive euthanasia for patients who are in a persistent and incurable vegetative state (PVS), thus giving them a dignified death by choosing to refusing medical treatment or life support. India has now joined a league of select nations, including Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg, to recognises the “right to die” as a fundamental right.

“Living will” and the will to live

A five-judge Constitution bench, headed by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, declared yesterday, “Human beings have the right to die with dignity”. The bench reached a consensus to that end, agreeing to authorise the withdrawal of life support from a patient, provided they have prepared a “living will” with the consent of their family members, and only after their vegetative condition has been ratified by a team of experts and doctors.

Justice AK Sikri justified the opinion and said that even though religion, law, philosophy, morality and society share conflicting opinions on the right to life and if it includes the right to death as well, they all concur that a person should be able to die with dignity, reported The Hindu.

Scepticism about wrongful termination

Ashish Tiwari, physician and medico-legal expert spoke to India Today,  expressing concern. “Euthanasia would be for people who are ‘terminally ill’ but how is it possible to decide the expectancy of life, I wonder,” he asked. Tiwari also suggested that allowing passive euthanasia could cause abuse and neglect of the elderly, and could be wrongfully used to cut healthcare costs. According to FirstPost, having a living will that allows for passive euthanasia only make sense when coupled with medical power of attorney and independent third-party monitoring by a medical board.

Passive euthanasia is not physician-assisted suicide

The Court took great care to delineate passive euthanasia from other forms of active, voluntary and involuntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, which are legally practiced in other countries. It has issued several guidelines regarding the execution of the living will and how to go about administering passive euthanasia in the absence of living wills.

Precursors who led the crusade

The case for legalising euthanasia has been an ongoing one, but gained national attention after the Aruna Shanbaug case, when the titular patient was granted euthanasia in 2014, after spending 42 years in a vegetative state and following considerable agitation by activist groups. NGO Common Cause launched a PIL in 2005 asking for the right to withdraw life support system from a patient who has reached an irreversible vegetative state.