Euthanasia: Right to life v. Right to Die

Euthanasia can be defined as an intervention to an insufferable exitance such as to end it and release the person of their pain. Euthanasia across generation has been considered as both good and both. According to the Greeks, euthanasia or what they called “good death” was essential to the person at a certain stage or when their health begins to decline. It was so popular that it was considered to be a tribal custom. However, ancient classical views dating as far as 300th to 400th B.C. categorised suicide as wrong. Rome considered euthanasia as a rational thing to do and the French laws were very lenient in this matter. It is thus a widely researched and discussed subjects and a survey released that 100% of Indian citizens were aware of the option of euthanasia.

Euthanasia is the act of painlessly putting to death certain persons who are suffering from a painful and incurable disease or incapacitating physical disorder. It can also be done by allowing the person to die by withholding treatment or withdrawing artificial life-support measures. This practice is also sometimes referred to as mercy killing.[1] The word Euthanasia has been derived from Ancient Greek language; it is based on a combination of termsmeaning “well” and Thanatos meaning “death”.

Euthanasia can be divided in these ways:

  1. Voluntary euthanasia – When the procedure is conducted with the patient’s consent. This type of euthanasia has been legalised in Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Oregon, Washington and Netherlands.
  2. Non – voluntary Euthanasia – When the decision regarding premature death is made by another person, primarily because the patient is unable to make a decision for themselves. The recipients of this type of euthanasia are usually infants or comatose patients who are unable to make their decision for themselves.
  3. Active euthanasia – If the death of the person is caused by external measures like a lethal injection or some toxic drugs. This branch of euthanasia is more likely to open discussions relating to religion and morality. It is considered grossly unethical to bring forth someone’s premature death without that person’s interference in the matter.[2]
  4. Passive euthanasia – The patient is allowed to die by deliberately retracting life-supporting mechanisms that were essential for him to stay alive. Therefore, this person is made to die of natural causes even though his life could be supported by alternative methods. Belgium allows for passive and voluntary euthanasia though the UK does not.[3]

The practice of euthanasia ever since it has been established has seen both severe criticisms as well as deliberate consideration. Some argue that the practice of euthanasia compromises the foremost moral principle that is every man has a right to life and even an expert cannot determine when it is that this specific right can be negated. Humanitarians have brought about examples where people who were in a coma for as long as 21 or 27 years have come out the other end healthy. Whereas advocates of euthanasia argue that instances where people have come out of such a long coma, are so rare, they are still categorised as miracles. On the other hand, the pain they and their family go through in all those years is quite real. So, if there was an option to end the hardships and pain, they should be able to take it.

This debate has ended in a few countries like the Netherlands and Belgium in 2001 and 2002 respectively. But the first country to legalise Euthanasia would be Oregon in 1997. At the time it was one of the most controversial law and its opponents left no stones unturned to criminalize it again. The right to die with Dignity was recognised by South Korea in 2009 by their Supreme Court to approve the removal of a brain dead woman from life-supporting systems.[4]

The ethical lines of thus debate become even hazier when the topic is passive euthanasia. Almost as old as the right to live in the right to choose. And the right to make an informed choice should not be interfered with. This decision is purely up to the individual and does not cause any harm to others. Another argument which has the same principles in mind is the abortion controversy. But at least there it can be argued that the right to life of a fetus cannot surpass the right to life of the mother. But in the heart of both these issues is the pro-choice controversy. The critics also showed concerns that once passive euthanasia is allowed it might open the roads to many such immoral practises that have been banned throughout the centuries. For example, the practise of voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands and its subsequent legalization there in 2001 provided an opportunity to test this claim. To date, studies of the rate of euthanasia in that country do not show any evidence of a slippery slope, but the absence of comparable studies in other countries means that the facts remain in dispute.[5]

Euthanasia in India

In the year 1985, India first started discussing the possibilities of euthanasia. The upper house of Maharashtra legislature moved a private bill regarding this issue. This Bill was moved to give the doctors who removed artificial life-prolonging machinery at the request of the terminally ill patient, protection from all kinds of civil and criminal liability. The same bill had another provision containing the advanced directive that allowed the doctor to take the same measures in case the patient has become incompetent to make any such requests afterwards. The doctor was to become immune from any kind of liability for performing such actions.[6]

Another bill along the same lines was introduced in Lok Sabha 22 years later, that is in the year 2007 which was titled, “The Euthanasia (Permission and Regulation) Bill, 2007 by C.K. Chandrappan.

Now, India has always been open to considerations for technological advancements and progressive thinking. Though it cannot be debated that once upon a time the practice of euthanasia would have been seen the same way as we see murder, that is the merciless killing of an innocent. This was ensured when the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the landmark judgment Pt. Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India and others that every doctor be it a government hospital or otherwise has the professional obligation to extend his services with due expertise for protecting life.[7]

But as times have changed and we have become progressive in our thinking, we realise that with the right to life under section 21 comes the right to live with dignity. And a person living under coma, hooked to life-sustaining machinery at all times cannot be seen as a person living with dignity. Instead, if that person decides to die with dignity and not live such a meaningless existence then they should be allowed to do so. Though here the example is based on active euthanasia, even passive euthanasia could be as noble. For example, if letting a comatose infant who has minimal brain activity and therefore minimal chances of having a full recovery is let to die, thus opening the possibility of the birth of another infant with much better chances at life and happiness, there should not be any doubts as to whether the death of the disabled infant was moralistic or not. Building on to this point, The Supreme Court of India in Kharak Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh, held that life is something more than mere animal existence.[8]

Om March 7, 2011 in Aruna Shanbaug v UOI[9], The Supreme Court led down certain guidelines under which the request for passive euthanasia can be filed.  It also legally differentiated active and passive euthanasia. In August 2012 the law commission drafted another bill called the Medical Treatment of Terminally Ill Patients (Protection of Patients and Practitioners). Finally, on 9th March 2018, S.C. decided to make passive euthanasia legal as an extension of the historical Aruna Shanbaug case and her death in 2015 from pneumonia after being in a persistent vegetative state for 42 years.

Conclusion

It has been observed that jurists all over the world have very similar views on euthanasia. It has boiled down to the question or rather the debate between right to life and right to choose, which is the basis of various other discussions under the umbrella of bioethics. However, in India, the judicial trend was not very favourable towards Euthanasia. Various contrasting opinions regarding this matter have been recorded in various High Courts of the country. The practice of euthanasia if accepted in India would be directly contradicting certain sections of The Indian Penal Code, namely Sections 306 and 309 which punishes suicide or attempt to suicide. However, laws are changing and passive euthanasia has already been allowed by the supreme court.


[1] The editor of encyclopaedia Britannica, Euthanasia, Encyclopaedia Britannica (Dec 27, 2019), https://www.britannica.com/topic/euthanasia

[2] Dimmock, M. ET AL., Ethics for A-Level 123-141 7 (Cambridge, UK: Open Book. Retrieved June 10, 2020) http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1wc7r6j.

[3] Dimmock, M. ET AL., Ethics for A-Level 123-141 7 (Cambridge, UK: Open Book. Retrieved June 10, 2020) http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1wc7r6j.

[4] The editor of encyclopaedia Britannica, Euthanasia, Encyclopaedia Britannica (Dec 27, 2019), https://www.britannica.com/topic/euthanasia

[5] The editor of encyclopaedia Britannica, Applied Ethics, Encyclopaedia Britannica (Sept 20, 2016), https://www.britannica.com/topic/ethics-philosophy/Applied-ethics#ref885882

[6] Supryo Routh, “Right to Euthanasia; A case against Criminalization” Criminal Law Journal, vol. 112, 2006, P-196.

[7]Pt. Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India and others, AIR 1989 SC 2039

[8] Kharak Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1963 SC 1295.

[9] Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India, (2011) 4 SCC 454.

Aishani Chakraborty from Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam

Aishani is a first year law student and aspiring lawyer. She loves writing about prevalent socio-legal issues and other legal topics.” 

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